Sometimes being versatile can be as much of a negative trait as it can be positive. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, even this season alone, has played as a winger, right-back, attacking midfielder and most recently in the heart of the Arsenal midfield.
Contracted until 2018, there has been talk around the 23-year-old leaving the Emirates in the summer, just one of a number of players that could exit this summer, but Arsène Wenger obviously has belief in his utility man, stating that it would be a huge mistake to let him leave.
“I personally think it’s vital that Chamberlain stays at Arsenal,” Wenger admitted.
“We bought him when he was very young and built him up. He has a great mentality and a good football brain and it would be big damage for us to lose this kind of player.”
The French boss reiterated that he believed that the club needed to try and retain their core of young British players.
“We have to keep them all. Ramsey, Chamberlain, Wilshere, Gibbs. All these players we have to make decisions and manage to keep them together.”
It’s obvious that ‘the Ox’ has something in his game, with Liverpool and Manchester City interested in making him a summer transfer target. Yet, his place in the Gunners team is far from secured, starting just 12 of his 24 Premier League appearances.
Arsenal’s new central mid
This season, he has played in the central midfield role six times and the results have been very positive. It seems to bring out the best attributes in his game and allows him some freedom to attack.
It was originally formulated to compensate for injuries and Mohamed Elneny being away on international duty. Oxlade-Chamberlain has taken the impressive parts of his game and combined it with a similar drive that Santi Cazorla showed in the position, something that he was asked about before the win over West Ham United.
“Definitely,” he told the Arsenal matchday programme.
“I want to be someone that first and foremost does their defensive job and does what the team requires in terms of being a solid midfielder who can get the ball, keep the ball moving and put the ball into areas for players like Alexis, Theo, Danny or Olivier going in behind.
“But I can definitely add that part of the game, where I pick the ball up deep and drive past players and open things up.
“In a funny way I find it a lot easier to do that in central midfield, maybe because the players aren’t as quick there.”
Oxlade-Chamberlain will be fighting for a place in Monday’s game with Crystal Palace. Wenger admitted that Francis Coquelin is back in contention, which gives the Frenchman a few different options in the middle of the park.
What does Oxlade-Chamberlain bring to the midfield?
Statistically, he still has a lot to learn, but the early signs are promising. Taking the numbers from the games he has played in the middle and, comparing it to Wenger’s other options, the England international isn’t too far off.
He is miles ahead in terms of beating opponents off the dribble, with 5.1 per 90 minutes — only Francis Coquelin averages single digits. In that position, you need someone that can break in between the lines, expose gaps in the midfield and drive the ball forward.
Against West Brom and with his team 2-1 down, although they would go on to lose, Oxlade-Chamberlain shows exactly what he mentioned. Picking the ball up deep in his own half, he has space to exploit and bursts forward up the pitch. He almost loses his footing, but does enough to get the ball out wide.
There were even moments against Bayern Munich at the Emirates when he was able to turn in the middle of the park, power past Arturo Vidal and push the ball into space. The 23-year-old winger’s characteristics are perfectly paced for this type of attack and it’s something the other options in that role can’t bring to the table.
Oxlade-Chamberlain in defence
Not everyone is convinced, with Tony Cascarino writing in his column for The Times that playing Oxlade-Chamberlain in the centre of the park was a dangerous move for England.
“He is a fine footballer but he is not the best defensively and at international level he makes the team vulnerable in the centre of the pitch.
“He would be far better out wide, trying to play in a similar style to Raheem Sterling, as he is also a tricky player who can beat his man, which is just what this England team is in need of.”
There is an element of truth to this, with the former Southampton man making 2 fouls per 90 minutes in his new position, but that’s just a little more than Coquelin.
In terms of successful tackles and interceptions, he is not too far away with 2.6 and 1 per 90 respectively. Considering this is a new formation and the others are defensive specialists, there has to be a certain level of respect for the way he has picked it up.
Playing against Hull City, there was a dangerous moment early in the first half when Andrew Robertson was played down the channel. Oxlade-Chamberlain had the awareness to see the run, the speed to chase him down and then the strength and defensive ability to put enough pressure on the full-back to effect the cross.
It’s an excellent bit of defensive play and not something every winger is capable of producing.
Is he worth a new deal?
At just 23-years-old, it will seem a waste if Arsenal were to allow Oxlade-Chamberlain to move on at this stage of his career. Although, it depends what he wants in terms of a new deal. He’s reportedly only on £65,000-a-week on his current deal, with Santi Cazorla earning £25k more and his contract up, Ox could take that level off the Spaniard and join Manchester United’s Jesse Lingard in earning that amount.
Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott earn £110k-a-week, the England international could argue he deserves that level and with the way he is playing in a multitude of positions, it’s hard to argue against him.
“We have seen Arsene [Wenger] give him a couple of chances in that midfield,” former Arsenal forward Ian Wright told ITV. “I don’t think he is imposing himself as well as he would like to.”
“I think all he needs to do really is get a bit more urgency about him, step it up a bit, sharpen himself up.”
Arsenal’s midfield, when it’s very defensive minded, can be flat and lacking energy. Oxlade-Chamberlain adds to both those areas and has a style of play and desire that the Gunners can often miss.