Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has battled perceptions for much of his senior career. Having broken through at Southampton at 17, the midfielder was saddled with the reputation of the Football League’s most exciting young player, and when he made the move to Arsenal in 2011, he was often on the outside looking in, his myriad injury problems stalling his progress in north London. With his contract dwindling and Liverpool’s interest public, Oxlade-Chamberlain opted to join Jurgen Klopp’s side in a £35 million deal on the final day of the summer transfer window, with his arrival met with a mixed reception from both journalists and supporters alike.
His versatility was seen as more of a negative than a positive; his fitness issues a major red flag; his tally of just 20 goals and 32 assists in 198 appearances for the Gunners a dismal output from an attacking player. “Oxlade-Chamberlain is part of Arsenal’s now much-maligned ‘British core’,” Goal’s Arsenal correspondent Christ Wheatley wrote on the eve of the 24-year-old’s move, “a group of six players who have now either left the club or failed to live up the great expectations many supporters had hoped they would fulfil.” The England international was corralled together with Kieran Gibbs, Carl Jenkinson, Jack Wilshere, Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey—hugely promising young British players who have largely proved a failed experiment by Arsene Wenger; the Frenchman’s faith in homegrown talent perhaps displaced from his more successful years.
But unlike Gibbs, who left his boyhood club for West Brom last summer at the age of 28, or Jenkinson, who also made the move to the Midlands to join Championship side Birmingham City on loan at 25, Oxlade-Chamberlain still has considerable room for improvement. Even Walcott, his predecessor, who walked the same path from St. Mary’s to the Emirates and has gone on to make 393 appearances for Arsenal, can be considered less of a talent than his youthful counterpart. Wilshere is still struggling for consistency, marred by injury problems and erring more towards Joe Cole than Paul Scholes in the pantheon of English midfielders; Ramsey remains a key component of Wenger’s side, but is part of a group currently flattering to deceive under the Frenchman.
Moving to Liverpool has given Oxlade-Chamberlain the opportunity to flourish, in a new environment and, crucially, under a new manager, with unwavering faith in his ability. “When I heard it may be possible to sign him I didn’t need to think twice,” Klopp said on the arrival of his new No. 21, while Oxlade-Chamberlain explained that “I felt like he was the man I’d want to come and play for because I feel like he could really push me and hopefully get the best out of me and take me to the next level.” There is a mutual understanding between player and manager and, as Klopp has proved on a number of occasions already at Liverpool—be it the exile of the hugely talented Mamadou Sakho or the revival of the under-appreciated Alberto Moreno—he is not one to be swayed by public perception.
Oxlade-Chamberlain certainly started slowly on Merseyside, and came into the side at a very difficult stage for Klopp’s Reds: his debut came in the 5-0 defeat away to Man City in September and his first win a scrappy 3-2 victory away to Leicester City 10 days later, with this being Liverpool’s only three points in the midfielder’s first eight appearances for the club. “It is always better if a new player comes in for the [start of] the season at least, if not for the pre-season,” Klopp attested, suggesting Oxlade-Chamberlain was still getting to grips with the demands of his system at Liverpool.
But starting with a bright, 22-minute cameo in the Reds’ 0-0 draw at home to Manchester United in October, Oxlade-Chamberlain began to show signs of the vitality, energy and cutting edge that Klopp will have identified when sanctioning a big-money move. This was followed by his first goal for the club, in the 7-0 mauling of Slovenian champions Maribor in the Champions League, and then two more impressive substitute performances against Tottenham Hotspur—Klopp’s best player in a miserable 4-1 loss at Wembley—and Huddersfield Town. Oxlade-Chamberlain made only his second start for Liverpool in the return clash with Maribor at Anfield at the beginning of November, producing his most complete display since joining the club, and then netted on his first Premier League start in the 4-1 thrashing of West Ham United.
That day in east London should serve as a breakthrough for Oxlade-Chamberlain: operating on the right of Klopp’s four-man midfield, he showcased a diligent work rate off the ball, lung-busting pace operating alongside Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, and the blend of neat passing play and willingness to test the goalkeeper that Klopp requires in the attacking third. Most notably, his incision in driving forward to beat Joe Hart and restore Liverpool’s two-goal lead just 57 seconds after Manuel Lanzini had delivered a bitter blow at the other end proved his mentality; the sight of Oxlade-Chamberlain roaring at the travelling Kop as West Ham’s celebratory bubbles still drifted over the London Stadium’s running track provided a fitting image for his triumphant counter-narrative.
After just 12 games for Liverpool, Oxlade-Chamberlain is already changing perceptions, as an ever-willing, flexible, enthusiastic option that allows Klopp to alternate roles and systems, and one who has already developed a strong bond with the club’s supporters. And as the German declared after his influential performance against the Hammers, “he will be a really important player for us.”