Tuesday 19 March 2019

'Ox' needs to put in strong showing in his return to the Emirates

Liverpool midfielder must start fulfilling his obvious potential after 'kick up the backside'

Jurgen Klopp keeps a careful watch as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain does his stuff for Arsenal against Liverpool at Anfield in August Photo: Getty
Jurgen Klopp keeps a careful watch as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain does his stuff for Arsenal against Liverpool at Anfield in August Photo: Getty

Jeremy Wilson

The hope and expectation that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain inspires in some of the very best football judges has always been striking. Arsene Wenger wanted to keep him, Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte both tried to bring him to Chelsea, and Jurgen Klopp could hardly have been more enthusiastic this week when discussing a player who has cost Liverpool £35 million.

"He has so much, he's like a wonderful package," said Klopp.

"I think the biggest potential for him is being involved in goalscoring situations. It is unbelievable, but he was not asked for this too much in the past."

It is an observation that will raise eyebrows at Arsenal, not least because he was regularly encouraged to break forward and the raw statistics of his time there are damning. In six years and 198 games, he scored just 20 times. Or, to put it another way, as many goals as Mohamed Salah has delivered in four months at Liverpool.

Thierry Henry summed up the frustrations in one sentence: "I've been watching him for a while and I still don't know what he's good at."

It all prompts intriguing questions ahead of Oxlade-Chamberlain's return to play at Arsenal tonight for the first time since his controversial departure.

Have we been deceived by all that obvious pace and power and is he simply overrated, or might he now develop for Liverpool in a way that will ask difficult questions of the coaching culture at Arsenal?

The early evidence at Liverpool is inconclusive. Oxlade-Chamberlain was initially peripheral, but has become increasingly influential to the right of a midfield three.

"The way the team plays suits him, with his power and speed - the kind of full-throttle that the manager wants," suggests Adam Lallana.

It sounds convincing, but, even in ending up at wing-back, Oxlade-Chamberlain was rarely held back offensively at Arsenal.

Wenger always suspected that, for all the polished and engaging off-field interviews, Oxlade-Chamberlain lacked a certain confidence. He would constantly talk him up and urge him not to be hard on himself. The player has since suggested that he will benefit from a more aggressive man-management style.

In explaining his decision, he has talked about "taking myself out of my comfort zone" and how "a kick up the backside would be good for me".

He did also become frustrated last summer at both the speed of contract negotiations and Arsenal's initial proposals.

It was not until August that Wenger sanctioned an extraordinary £180,000-a-week offer that would have made him the highest-paid player at the club.

Oxlade-Chamberlain had already indicated a desire to leave and turned it down, but, bafflingly, Wenger still started him against Liverpool at Anfield four days before the transfer window closed. What followed was one of the worst Arsenal performances of recent times.

Chelsea had also been willing to pay £35 million for Oxlade-Chamberlain but he opted for Liverpool and a salary understood to be £60,000-a-week less than Arsenal's proposal.

"He made his decision and we had to find a compromise to get the best possible fee," said Wenger.

"I think he will be an important player for England and that he will continue to develop. We respect his decision."

There was a warning, though, that Oxlade-Chamberlain was also uncertain of regular football at Liverpool.

"Is he sure of a place?" said Wenger. "In a big club you have big competition. What do you want to be, a big player and not have to fight? You can't be a big player, sit in your rocking chair and say, 'I do not want to fight'."

Oxlade-Chamberlain can expect a hostile reception tonight despite Wenger's call for former players to be respected. The Arsenal manager also rejected the wider, more awkward questions, about whether Oxlade-Chamberlain's departure was indicative of a restless dressing room and a faltering attempt to build around a young British core.

"I would like to remind you last Saturday we played with four players educated here (Alex Iwobi, Jack Wilshere, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Hector Bellerin)," he countered.

"It hasn't come off as well as we would have liked, but it remains the basis of our philosophy."

The counterpoint is that perhaps Wenger has been too patient with some players. Losing Oxlade-Chamberlain was never part of the plan, but unless he really does now grasp this opportunity and flourish in a way that rarely seemed likely at Arsenal, it may yet be one of Wenger's more astute sales. (© The Daily Telegraph)


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