Arsenal won 4-1 against Everton to book a place in the semi-finals of the FA Cup. While the likes of Mikel Arteta, Mesut Ozil, and Santi Cazorla played up to their high standards on the day, the most tantalizing prospect was the continued growth of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as a two-way talent seemingly destined for central midfield.
Against Everton, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain showed a combination of directness, technique, pace, and strength that made him a potent force going forward. His athleticism also allowed him to either recover or track the passage of play when Arsenal lost possession, which led to him making some key interventions. Throw in the intelligence of his game, and it is hard to believe that the Englishman is this well-rounded at only 20 years old.
What may hurt Arsenal fans is that Oxlade-Chamberlain showed signs that this would be “his year.” Against Aston Villa, before going off injured, he played better than any other player on the pitch. He performed well wide on the left and in more central role. In fact, combine that performance with the current quality of his play and it makes one wonder how Arsenal’s season could have turned out if he never got hurt on opening day. Arsenal would have had his services from the middle of August through the middle of January, and Oxlade-Chamberlain’s would probably be further along in his development. Maybe he would have challenged Aaron Ramsey for the title of Arsenal’s best player in the first half of the season. Maybe more importantly for this season, his presence would have made it easier for Arsene Wenger to rest Aaron Ramsey, as Wenger could rotate one all-around midfielder with another.
Going forward, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s role at Arsenal may be as an all-around central midfielder. Arsene Wenger has already stated his desire for Oxlade-Chamberlain to play in central midfield and the Englishman’s performances against Newcastle United last season and Crystal Palace this season show that he is more than capable. If he continues to develop into the role, then Wenger will have two all-around midfield talents to play in the center of the park. In particular, Oxlade-Chamberlain’s athleticism in central midfield could provide Arsenal with greater solidity and make them a more penetrative force.
Speed Kills…On Both Sides of the Ball
A side like Arsenal tends to push their full-backs high up the pitch, leaving a holding midfielder and the two center backs deep. Now a side like this may risk being overrun on the counter attack, only having three men to defend the opponent. This is one reason that the modern full-back is often the best athlete in the side. If one has a full-back like David Alaba, then one can mitigate the cost of committing men forward, allowing them to commit more men forward. That is because the faster one can transition from attack to defense, the more one can make up for initially having fewer men at the back.
While many often look to the full-backs to be able to quickly recover from advanced positions, having an athlete like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in central midfield gives a side another player who can rush back to help and/or rescue his teammates. If one has Mikel Arteta or Jack Wilshere get beat by an opponent or get caught behind the play when Arsenal lose possession, then the defenders at the back are likely on their own. There is little hope that either will be able to catchup with the individual that went past them or chase down the play and get into a good defensive position/make a good defensive action in time. One need only look at how Everton scored their only goal of the match. Once Everton get possession, after blocking Arteta’s shot, there is little chance that either Ozil or Arteta could successfully keep up with Ross Barkley. This left Mathieu Flamini 1-on-1 with Ross Barkley. While he defended the situation poorly, the fact that he was on a yellow card may have made him tentative, and therefore, more in need of a teammate to bail him out of that particular situation.
The athleticism of Oxlade-Chamberlain could have helped Flamini in that situation. It allows Oxlade-Chamberlain to catchup with an opponent that has gone past him, or it allows him to provide timely reinforcement for his teammates under siege. Not do the defensive actions themselves help, but the increased security for the other defenders likely dissuades them from making desperate decisions. They are less likely to recklessly break the defensive shape in order to stop an attacking move, since they know that containing the opposition means that soon they will find themselves in a situation to defend more effectively with les s risk, once their reinforcements arrive.
The value of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s athleticism can also be highlighted in Arsenal’s first goal in the match against Everton. While it was James McCarthy’s slip that set Santi Cazorla free and exposed the Everton defense, it showed that value of having a player who is able to beat his marker and then either maintain separation or increase separation with his opponent. This can cause the most stubborn of organized defenses to fall apart. This would be especially useful for Arsenal, as many teams have successfully looked to pressure Arsenal’s players in the center of the park, forcing them wide, making them easier to defend. A player with the technique, strength, pace, and agility of Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain can better beat the initial pressure and expose those deeper defenders. Not only is that attribute valuable, but having other teams understand the threat of that outcome may prevent them from implementing such a tactic. It disincentivizes an opponent’s plan to press or stay tight in central midfield, which can decrease the pressure Arsenal’s player face on the ball.
A “Total” Midfield Pairing
Going forward, Arsenal have two legitimate all-around midfield talents who they can confidently play with a holding midfielder in their version of a 4-2-3-1. This makes Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain the first two choices for that position. This helps Arsenal to not lose those penetrative off-ball runs from central midfield when either one is out of the side. Given the quality of Cazorla and especially Mesut Ozil to play the killer pass, one would desire to have those vertical off-ball runners.
Given their all-around ability and Oxlade-Chamberlain’s ability to play in the holding role when assigned it, one could see Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ramsey playing together in the central base pair of Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1. Unlike a Wilshere/Ramsey central base pair that would strike fear into the hearts of Arsenal fans, an Ox/Ramsey central base pair contains two players who are not deficient when the side is in or out of possession. In addition, both can operate in many, yet complementary midfield roles. This not only allows them to start a match with a variety of potential roles, but allows them to change and swap roles as the match goes on.
In an era of three-man midfields and increased specialization of midfield roles (despite this past year being marked one of increased universality among footballers), sides, in some ways become easier to defend, as it is easier to structure a defensive system to deprive them of essential attribute. For example, sides that depended on a classic No. 10 or regista for creativity could see their side thrown out of whack by one man marker. Therefore, having two all-around midfielders, who can swap roles, can provide great benefit to Arsenal. It increases the unpredictability of Arsenal’s attack, as the opponent has increased difficulty in figuring out how to stop either midfielder. It makes it more difficult to have the proper defensive structure at any point in the match.
So, while one may argue that it is best to have Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain in more advanced positions consistently, to have their talents close to goal, the increased unpredictability, through the swapping of roles and positions, and can make that decreased time in advanced positions more productive, and ultimately, make the side more productive in possession. Sure, the two would take up various roles for different amounts of time. For example, Oxlade-Chamberlain may consistently spend more time in deep-lying positions compared to Ramsey. However, that is unimportant, if the time spent in that role makes it harder for the defense to keep track of him when he takes up an advanced position.
A Consequence of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in Central Midfield
Now in this potential future of all-around midfielders and total midfields for Arsenal, a question many fans may have is, “what about Jack?” First, having two players who can occupy central midfield, either with a dedicated holder or together, can allow Wilshere to recover and then play on a schedule that is more conducive to the state of his body. One could argue that he has yet to recover from the ankle injury he sustained in 2011, that he has been rushed back too often from injuries, and that he has been overworked while not being 100% fit. The emergence of Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ramsey can reduce the temptation to bring back Wilshere too early or to overplay him.
In addition to keeping him healthier, it may provide Wilshere more incentive to work on the defensive aspects of his game. While he may be the best of the trio when it comes to on-ball ability, he is quite far behind in understanding how to play defensively, in central midfield. As this author has written before, Wilshere’s defensive profile is much more appropriate for a wide playmaker on the right than a central midfielder. Even when fit, there is more of an argument for him to be the third-choice central midfielder among the three young Brits than first-choice, due to the costs he imposes on Arsenal when they are out of possession (to be clear, this has always been a problem with Wilshere, but unlike previous seasons, Arsenal have options with the two-way quality of Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ramsey). Given the quality of Mesut Ozil and the importance of Theo Walcott, Wilshere’s only option for a consistent position appears to be wide on the left. However, his one-footedness, combined with a lack of pace, makes him a poor fit on the left. And with talk of Arsenal targeting Julian Draxler or Antoine Griezmann, that position may not be available either. Therefore, a preference for two-way players like Ox and Ramsey in central midfield may push Wilshere to develop the defensive side of his game.
Finally, Arsenal may need to assume that they cannot count on Wilshere to play a whole season as a first-choice member of the starting XI. There is a very real possibility that he is prone to picking up injuries, even if he fully recovered from all that currently ails him. Therefore, having superior options like Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain will allow Wilshere to play an amount of games his body can handle, rather than having him run into the ground. Given the fact that Arsenal will consistently find themselves in four competitions to start every season for a while, having this kind of depth so Wilshere does not have to play all those games should be celebrated. In fact, given the damage injuries have caused to Arsenal’s title run, this kind of depth at any position of the team should be celebrated rather than looked upon as an issue.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has made himself a must start for the rest of the season. Given his combination of footballing ability and physical tools, he has an immense ceiling as a central midfielder. As they develop, Ox and Ramsey could be a central midfield pairing of which other English sides can only dream. But remember, he is only 20 years old; he has plenty of room to grow. And Arsenal fans should enjoy every minute of it.