Per Mertesacker clears the ball down field at the Allianz Arena. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is isolated on the left but his first touch is good enough and he has the strength to shrug off the initial challenge from Phillip Lahm. His burst of pace takes him away from Lahm and towards the onrushing Javi Martinez. Martinez lunges in as he attempts to win the ball but Chamberlain cuts back inside, rides the challenge and takes it round Lahm’s second attempt to win it back with his next touch. Bastian Schweinstiger comes in to stop him but his attention is soon thrown towards trying to stay upright after being skinned by the Englishman’s quick feet. Thiago Alacantara becomes alert to the danger, but at this stage it’s too late, Chamberlain’s pace is too much and Thiago is a mere bystander as he charges towards the Bayern penalty area. Just before it’s too late Schweinstiger comes from behind and with a combination of limbs manages to foul him before he can go any further. Arsenal have a dangerous free kick on the edge of the area.
It’s not hard to see why there has been a lot of excitement about the Ox from the beginning. That 14 second passage [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UYH1i3figZE] was just the highlight of a man of the match performance from the then 20 year old at the home of the European Champions. His phenomenal physical attributes are obvious, the burst of pace and high top speed, the strength to shrug of defenders. His top level dribbling meant he was a constant menace to the Bavarians and practically the only player driving Arsenal forward. He attempted ten dribbles and completed all of them, all in the first hour of the match. Bayern’s only defence against him was his fatigue.
It’s not the only time in his career that he’s looked near unstoppable and on the brink of being world class. At Old Trafford in Arsenal’s FA Cup win he terrorised United down the right hand side and set up the opener after a dancing run through the middle. But sadly for Arsenal fans such performances, while not quite being one offs, have been too far and few between over the years and it raises questions about just what it takes to be a regularly effective player.
Chamberlain clearly has the physical and technical attributes needed to be a top level player. Some people doubt the latter fact, but his dribbling is among the best in the Premier League, he can execute a fairly wide range of passes and can strike the ball well when shooting from distance. And yet, at the age of 23, there are still justified questions about his role at Arsenal and even his long term future at the club.
Chamberlain’s problem at the moment is that despite having strong attributes, he doesn’t actually contribute to the team in a particularly useful way or reduce any of the sides weaknesses. Arsenal’s biggest issues last season were a lack of reliable goalscorers, poor build up play and overall bad positioning, in possession and out of it. Chamberlain being in the team doesn’t help with any of these things. If Arsenal are seeking a wide player who can score regularly and create goals for others they’ll look towards Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott – both of whom have much better goal records – and even possibly Aaron Ramsey, who has proved to be a bigger goal threat than Chamberlain, even if not specifically on the right hand side. If Arsenal want to balance the side on one of the wings and pick someone who’ll help in possession and do a job defensively, he’s behind Ramsey and Iwobi on each wing. His main threat is his ability to beat defenders in one against one situations, but Alexis already does this with a much wider variety of weapons in his armoury. On the right he can act as something of an outlet and offer width but it’s arguably not enough to take an attacking midfield spot when Bellerin does a similar job.
These problems were laid bare in the win at Watford. Chamberlain played on the left hand side, with Alexis playing as the number nine and Walcott on the right. With Alexis regularly drifting to the left hand side, there was great opportunity for the player on the left to make the opposite run inside, where Alexis had vacated space, and cause danger in a central position. But Chamberlain proved incapable of benefiting from Alexis’ false nine play, lacking the intelligence to make well timed diagonal runs. Such examples of his poor movement are one of the reasons he’s not been a good goalscorer despite having decent ball striking ability. This wouldn’t have been a major issue if he’d performed the other role of an Arsenal wide man and become the de facto 3rd central midfielder and helped control the middle of the park with Cazorla and Xhaka. But he didn’t do that either, and instead merely occupied the same spaces as Alexis, struggling to even act as an outlet and threat down the wing as a result. He didn’t cause any threat in an attacking sense, help Arsenal in midfield or even do a competent job defensively, and was caught napping for the Watford goal.
Chamberlain is still young enough to change this and become a high class player. He needs someone to give him a defined role and drill into him how to play it in a specific manor. Unfortunately such a process is unlikely to occur at Arsenal in Wenger’s laissez-faire system. In that sense his hopes of flourishing at Arsenal, at least in the short to medium term, seem slim, and it may be unfortunate for him that the speculated interest from Manchester City in the summer led nowhere. For now he seems destined to simply be a case study that proves eye catching ability alone doesn’t make a top class footballer.
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