The teenager has impressed on the wing but produced arguably the finest display of his fledgling career against AC Milan on Tuesday night in his preferred central midfield role
By Oliver Platt
A teenage Southampton academy product possessing electrifying pace – it was easy to draw similarities between Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott when the former joined the latter at Arsenal for a seven-figure fee in August 2011.
Gareth Bale, although a more well-rounded player than Walcott, also arrived at Tottenham after graduating the Saints' school of wingers and everything suggested Oxlade-Chamberlain would bring a similar style to the Emirates Stadium.
Some, though, knew the 18-year-old prodigy better, and none more so than himself: "People compare me to Theo and I don’t mind that as he is a brilliant player," Oxlade-Chamberlain said shortly before signing for Arsenal.
"But I’ve only been a winger in the past year. Before that I was playing central midfield through the age groups."
Oxlade-Chamberlain sees the centre of the park, and not the touchline, as his natural home and plenty will feel the same way after a masterful first-half performance in the Champions League against AC Milan on Tuesday night.
After planting a corner on Laurent Koscielny's head to give Arsenal hope, the Gunners' new golden boy darted inside Antonio Nocerino and Djamel Mesbah to win a penalty that was converted by Robin van Persie.
|STAR OF THE SHOW
| PLAYER RATING
|8.5||The night a superstar was born. His first-half display in central midfield was so polished it was little wonder that he didn't have a can of Mr Sheen in his shorts. Set up the opener with his fizzing corner and brilliantly won the penalty for the third. Proved that Arsenal might have a once-in-a-generation player on their hands.|
Mark missed out on the chance to play against European opposition for Sheffield Wednesday due to the ban on English teams imposed after the Heysel disaster of 1985. He made eight appearances for England – the most memorable of which came against Brazil at the Maracana in 1984 – but Alex will surely now go on to easily surpass that number.
What is more uncertain, although perhaps less so after Tuesday night's display, is when Oxlade-Chamberlain's first England cap will arrive. He has played a starring role in eight matches with the Under-21 side, but was not included in Stuart Pearce's squad to face the Netherlands in the senior side's most recent friendly.
Whoever is in charge by the time England's two pre-Euro 2012 friendlies come around at the end of the domestic season, Oxlade-Chamberlain will surely be involved as a potential late addition to the party that travels to Poland and Ukraine.
But for now, his focus is on Arsenal. Their impressive recent form, combined with Chelsea's recent meltdown, has put them in a strong position in the race to claim fourth place in the Premier League. Their exit from the Champions League will allow them to concentrate fully on that goal but it is easy to wonder what might have been had Oxlade-Chamberlain featured earlier than the 66th minute in the first leg at San Siro.
Wenger, who revealed after the match that Oxlade-Chamberlain nearly missed the match due to a bout of flu that was causing the young star problems as late as Monday night, labelled his performance in the second leg "outstanding" but, perhaps wishing to keep the pressure off of the midfield prodigy, left it at that.
He was magnificent, not only in demonstrating his technical ability but also in the way he showcased poise and maturity well beyond his 18 years. In addition to his attacking potency, he tracked back willingly and held his position in the centre of the park with responsibility. The only shame was the fatigue that caught up with him in the second half; when Oxlade-Chamberlain faded, so did Arsenal.
There will be another time and another stage. The future at the Emirates Stadium is undoubtedly bright but some, including this writer, questioned how quickly that potential would turn into tangible achievement.
Sooner, perhaps, than we thought, if Oxlade-Chamberlain continues to emerge as a young player as talented as the likes of Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey.
"He's not there yet and he won't be until he's 25 with 300 Premier League games under his belt, doing what Wayne Rooney's doing," father Mark said in October of last year.
He may not be there yet, but he already seems to be well on his way.