Growing league-wide flexibility gives Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain value away from Arsenal

Words By Nick Miller
July 14, 2017
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Attention, quite understandably, has been on other things at Arsenal this summer. Alexis Sanchez, with his current contract expiring in a year is eyeing up the men with large sacks of cash looming on the horizon, plus there are the distractions of possibly selling Olivier Giroud and Mesut Ozil. With all that in mind, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain hasn’t been a name on the tip of everyone’s tongues.

Oxlade-Chamberlain’s own contract has a year left to run, and even though Arsenal have a new one ready and drawn up, lacking only his signature, reports indicate he’s unlikely to put pen to paper. While Arsene Wenger dislikes excessive player churn, if those reports are true then the only sensible thing to do is sell now. The good news for player and probably club too, is that he might not be short of options.

It’s sometimes pretty difficult to know what to make of Oxlade-Chamberlain. Signed by Arsenal six years ago, he has enjoyed bursts of form without ever really offering much consistency, and has given little to convince anyone that his early promise will be fully realised.

However, the latter few months of last season represented one of those purple patches. Arsene Wenger’s late-career discovery of wing-backs gave Oxlade-Chamberlain the chance to impress on either flank in that position, and indeed was sparky in a cameo for England against Scotland, a stodgy game in which his directness forced the opening goal. That performance was in his more traditional role on the wing, where he has showed sporadic quality over the last few seasons. He also believes – or at least believed at some point – that his eventual position would be in central midfield, something Wenger agreed with.

“I thought this is where I want to be able to play moving forward, so maybe that is my main ambition to end up playing there,” he said before the FA Cup final. “The attributes I have go hand in hand with playing out wide, so I think it just depends on what the best fit for the team is and myself as to where I play. Long term, I’d hope I end up playing more central.”

His versatility has sometimes looked like a weakness, providing part of the reason for him never really being able to hold down a regular place in the Arsenal team. “I think it is a tricky thing to nail me down to one position,” he admitted. In many walks of life, not just football, not having a single defined particular role is often treated with some suspicion. A master of one is usually preferred to a jack of all.

But this summer, that versatility might be his biggest selling point. The notable tactical trend of last season was that all of the Premier League’s big clubs, at some point, used a three-man defence. Some were more successful than others, but a knock-on effect of its use is that players able to fill the vitally important and notoriously tricky role of wing-back suddenly became incredibly valuable. This summer, wing-backs are in high demand, which is why Tottenham held out for the £50m they will now receive from Manchester City for Kyle Walker.

Even if not all clubs will continue with this trend, at the very least it indicated that tactical flexibility was more important than ever. It was also clear that having a dogmatic ‘philosophy’ isn’t really practical, and different systems were required for different situations, whether that’s to make the best of your own resources or to combat the opposition. Naturally, this necessitates having flexible players.

Which is where Oxlade-Chamberlain comes in. Having a player who can operate on either side, in the middle, as a winger or a wing-back, might be incredibly valuable. And given his contractual situation, he would represent good value, if the concept of ‘good value’ hasn’t been completely blown out of the water simply by the amount of money that everyone has. Obviously this all rests on Oxlade-Chamberlain actually being able to replicate his late-season form more consistently. But listening to him talk in May, it was interesting to hear how he thinks about the game, and how he adapted to a new role.

“Tottenham play with that formation, Chelsea play with that formation,” he said, when asked by the Evening Standard about three-at-the-back. “There are a lot of teams who have played with that formation, so I watch all the full-backs, the left-back, the right-back. When I’ve watched Dani Alves recently, he might not play the five at the back but the way he plays, he marches on and he adds a lot in an attacking sense as well as defensively. Players like that, you watch and you learn from them.”

In a summer in which different systems are widely in use, coming off a few months of fine play, Oxlade-Chamberlain’s stock has – in theory at least – never been higher. Liverpool have been the most frequently mentioned potential suitors, and he could even be a useful recruit for Manchester City, but perhaps the most logical destination is actually Tottenham. For obvious reasons that seems unlikely, but he’s very much a Mauricio Pochettino player, is adaptable and for a team operating with straitened means, could be a bargain.

But wherever he goes, or even if he stays, Oxlade-Chamberlain might be one of the most valuable players around this summer. And who thought we’d be saying that a few months ago.

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