Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is undoubtedly one of the premier talents at Arsenal Football Club. His combination of pace, power, dribbling ability, passing, crossing and shot-striking have made Gunners fans drool with expectation since he came to North London mere days before turning 18.
Despite all of the hype and expectation surrounding The Ox, though, he’s yet to really stake his claim to a consistent first XI slot for the Gunners. While injury has certainly played a part in that, inconsistent play while attempting to figure out his best position has also been an issue.
His initial (and most frequent) position for Arsenal has been on the right side of an attacking 4. While he has had his moments at that position, he’s never nailed down a spot for a few reasons. First, he plays that position more like a winger than any of Arsenal’s other options. Theo Walcott has had great success in that role as a forward. Aaron Ramsey played as an additional midfielder in previous years in that position and helped the team succeed. Alex Iwobi has also helped the team build up play more successfully from both the right and left wings. Even in his best performances, Oxlade-Chamberlain seems disconnected from his teammates. He may beat the fullback regularly, but if his crosses don’t come off, he rarely adds anything else to the team’s play. He’s not a goal threat, which is an issue when you’ve already got Mesut Özil as one of the first two names in the attacking unit. His decision-making in the final third also leaves something to be desired frequently.
Oxlade-Chamberlain has also been thrown out on the left side of attack on occasion with middling success for all of the reasons listed above, as well as one other. He is much more successful in dribbling past opponents and getting to the byline rather than cutting inside, like Bayern Munich’s idyllic inverted wingers, Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, and getting a shot off with his stronger foot. Playing on the left minimizes his strength (crossing) and maximizes his weakness (shooting).
The position that Wenger has long stated is Oxlade-Chamberlain’s eventual future, and one he has received more of an opportunity in this season, is central midfield. While he has looked impressive in a couple of his opportunities in this role, I still have my doubts as to his long-term suitability for the role. He lacks the positional awareness required for that role in the modern game. Finding pockets of space to receive a pass. Breaking up an attacking move by being in the right spot. Playing the safe pass to maintain possession and move around the defense in build-up play. These are rare and important traits for midfielders at the highest levels to have and Oxlade-Chamberlain has yet to exhibit them. That’s not to say that he could not pick them up, but it is certainly not a given.
Arsenal fans were enamored with The Ox’s initial performances in midfield this season, largely based on his athletic display in an open cup match against Southampton. In open, up and down matches, Oxlade-Chamberlain’s athleticism does merit some consideration in the central midfield role. Unfortunately for him, and us from a purely neutral entertainment standpoint, the majority of our matches are not contested in that manner. On a final note, Oxlade-Chamberlain’s decision-making, with the whole of the pitch as his oyster, is still lacking. The bevy of options works against the former Soton man who, particularly when he’s struggling, overthinks things and either doesn’t react or act quickly enough or forces something when acting too quickly.
Central attacking midfield, also known as the Cesc Fabregas Memorial Director of Attack, is another position that Oxlade-Chamberlain has played a handful of times in his career. Not to beat a dead horse, but his decision-making and final ball ability, as well as his lack of build-up play in the final third, make this an awkward fit. Again, something he could do in an open match, but probably not his strong suit. Obviously, we all hope Mesut Özil occupies that role for a few more years and, after his departure, Alex Iwobi seems primed to take over there.
Right back is a position that The Ox has also played, though typically in desperate moments at the end of matches when Arsenal are chasing a goal. In a back four, Oxlade-Chamberlain would have too large a load defensively, with minimal cover in our 4-2-3-1 of recent years. Also, he has no experience with defensive positioning or holding a line. While physically it might be a fit, it would be dangerous indeed to use him in this role in anything but emergency situations.
Which brings us to the right wingback position that Oxlade-Chamberlain has manned for the past two matches. To be honest, I’ve vacillated in the past over whether I thought he could handle this role. Before the season, when there were rumors swirling about Pep Guardiola coveting The Ox, I was unsure if he had the defensive awareness for the role. Before the Middlesbrough match, I told The Short Fuse Slack I thought this just might work. I do think if there’s one thing he’s improved on this season, it’s defensive effort. Sure enough, so far, the formation switch has benefited nobody more than Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
The position highlights all of his strengths and minimizes all of his weaknesses. His dribbling skills are even more on display in this role as he is primarily taking on attackers instead of full backs. Sunday, he played an important release valve role, able to relieve pressure by dribbling out of trouble, something we’ve lacked since Santi Cazorla’s injury. The deeper positioning also allows Oxlade-Chamberlain to get a head of steam before meeting the defensive line, a situation in which he typically excels at, either beating the defender or drawing a foul. Whenever Arsenal have built-up an attack methodically, Oxlade-Chamberlain is of a secondary concern, and with the runs of Ramsey and Özil occupying the left back frequently, it is up to an attacker to mark The Ox. Oxlade-Chamberlain seems to be a player that thrives in a secondary role. The lack of attention on him in this nominally defensive position gives him more time to operate and, so far, has led to better decision-making on his part.
On the defensive end, he is not required to play as structured a role and has been aided by the close proximity of Gabriel. Both players’ renaissance in this new formation has been a result of symbiosis. Gabriel can help cover for Oxlade-Chamberlain. Oxlade-Chamberlain can recover and help Gabriel if he gets drawn out wide. The spacing is much better defensively than it has been for the entirety of the season. There’s no question this right-sided defensive partnership neutralized Leroy Sané, who had a goal in each of the Premier League contests between the clubs, more than in previous outings.
This breakthrough is not guaranteed though. As has been his modus operandi throughout his Arsenal career, this short spell of good form may be short-lived. There is also issue of one Héctor Bellerín, Arsenal’s young right back who would be eager to be granted a more attacking role than he’s thus far played in his Arsenal career. Due to what appears to be nagging injuries, Bellerín may not be true competition for The Ox in this role this season. However, if the latter’s form continues, that leaves the manager with quite a decision to make headed into next season. After injury issues and poor form thus far this season, it would certainly be a headache Wenger would be happy to have.
The issue of his contract also remains outstanding. With only one year remaining after the conclusion of this season, it remains to be seen whether The Ox will commit to Arsenal long-term without a regular role in the squad. After so much investment in the young player, it would be a real gut-punch to lose him after it appears he may have found his best position. Hopefully, his recent star turn continues and convinces the youngster that his future lies with the Gunners.