Wenger's wildcard Oxlade-Chamberlain comes of age for Arsenal

The 20-year-old midfielder was the ace up his boss's sleeve in Germany and, although the Gunners came up short, he provided the drive and skill which will be required in the run-in
By Sam Lee

When Arsene Wenger was asked, less than an hour before kick-off at the Allianz Arena, why he chose Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain ahead of Mathieu Flamini his response was simple: "Because we need goals."

Although his hand was forced by Bayern Munich's two-goal aggregate advantage, it was a brave decision by Wenger. The Frenchman, not the most flexible in his tactical approach at the best of times, tweaked his gameplan as much as his own parameters allowed and Oxlade-Chamberlain was the wildcard at the centre of his plans. Although the Gunners eventually came up short, the youngster did not disappoint.

This is a man who is 20 years old, taking the game to the European champions in their own back yard whenever he was on the ball. He provided the kind of direct running, and fleetness of foot, which has all too often been lacking from this Arsenal side, even with Theo Walcott fit and well.

On a night when Wenger needed big performances, Oxlade-Chamberlain stepped up.

Wenger picked "the Ox" to drag the team forward at every possible opportunity and he can only be applauded for that. A cynic may have suggested that by sacrificing Flamini, the shield ahead of the back four, Wenger's need for goals would have quickly become far greater than at the start of the night. But Oxlade-Chamberlain would not be outmanoeuvred in defence and, in the first half especially, genuinely worried the Bayern ranks with his surging runs forward.

But that alone, of course, would not be enough to score two or more unanswered goals against the best side in Europe. While Arsenal can be commended for their approach, Oxlade-Chamberlain himself hit the nail on the head in his post-match analysis.

“Maybe we lacked a bit of quality with our final ball,” he told ITV Sport. “I thought we got into a lot of dangerous positions, we just lacked that final cutting edge ball. At the top level you need to be able to do that, especially against a team like Bayern.”

As Bayern controlled the match, albeit without dazzling, it was another quiet night for the man purchased to provide those cutting-edge moments: Mesut Ozil, who was withdrawn at half-time with a tight hamstring.

Ozil is still settling into his Arsenal surroundings and his day will come, but Oxlade-Chamberlain showed has the potential to be the man for the big occasion.

At one point in the first half he effortlessly glided past Javi Martinez, Philipp Lahm and Thiago, before being unceremoniously brought down by Bastian Schweinsteiger as he closed in on Manuel Neuer’s goal.

In that one moment alone he showed that he can worry the very best midfielders in the business when it matters most, which should give heart to not only Wenger but also, in this World Cup year, Roy Hodgson.

The England boss is not short of numbers in the central midfield areas but both Hodgson and Wenger will come away from this match knowing that Oxlade-Chamberlain is ready, willing and more than capable of making his mark.

With Jack Wilshere on the sidelines until at least the end of April, Wenger will certainly need his wildcard in the coming weeks. A perilous FA Cup semi-final against Wigan lies ahead in mid-April, but not before the Gunners face Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester City as their Premier League pursuit ratchets up a notch or two in the next 18 days.

The 20-year-old, like his team, ran out of steam late on, and Wednesday will ultimately represent another Champions League failure for Wenger’s men. But without offering patronising commiserations, they can travel back to London knowing that they far from disgraced themselves. They made the same journey this time last year and it sparked a remarkable end-of-season run which lead them to a scarcely-believable fourth-placed finish.

Now they must pick themselves up once again, and if Oxlade-Chamberlain can reproduce  the kind of inspired, cock-sure performance that he put in on Tuesday night then that fabled first trophy in nine years may not be so far away.