By Ewan Roberts
Just over a year ago, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was taking to the field against Olympiakos in the Champions League. Arsenal's summer recruit would win the man-of-the-match champagne, barely being old enough to drink it, and leave the Emirates Stadium pitch to a standing ovation having become the youngest English scorer in the competition.
Fast-forward 14 months to Tuesday night, when Oxlade-Chamberlain lined up against the Greek champions once more, this time in Piraeus, but gave a performance that was as worryingly peripheral as his European debut a year earlier had been palpably brilliant.
The young attacking midfielder was largely anonymous at the Karaiskakis Stadium, touching the ball fewer times than Wojciech Szczesny, and struggled to influence the match. Direct, tricky and unpredictable a year previously, he gave a tamer performance in Greece that was devoid of the trickery and fearless willingness to commit players and run at defenders that had typified his maiden European outing.
The match had seemed tailor-made for Oxlade-Chamberlain, with Arsenal given plenty of opportunity to counterattack against an adventurous home side with only pride for which to play. The match-up with Vasilis Torosidis looked particularly fruitful, with the Greek full-back regularly abandoning his post and leaving space in behind to exploit.
|OX BACK IN HIS BOX
| PLAYER RATING | ALEX OXLADE-CHAMBERLAIN
|Scrapped out a good chance early on but was disappointing thereafter. His control often let him down at vital times and he was susceptible to running the ball into difficult areas.|
This is largely indicative of his season so far and symptomatic of the "Next Big Thing" tag that can make, break or stunt a player. For Oxlade-Chamberlain, his blossoming reputation, both at club level and for the national team, and the feverish desire to latch onto promising English youngsters, has turned him into product first and a player second.
He appeared on the front cover of Fifa 13 alongside Lionel Messi and has even been given his own TV show by Arsenal, 'OX TV'. Oxlade-Chamberlain has been turned into a superstar before he has merited it - does he now believe his own hype?
He is too busy dressing up as a surgeon and donning the moniker "Dr Chambo", too preoccupied with attempting 50 keepy-uppies while balancing a tray of china plates on his head and crocheting a vision of himself in wool.
Manager Arsene Wenger has acknowledged the dip in form but urged patience, declaring: "Alex has not played a lot recently, he lacks a bit of physical fitness. He's learning his trade and he's a very talented young boy. I believe he will be a great player but at the moment he is learning his job. Basically, he's 19 years old and there will be ups and downs, of course, but I believe he will be a great player."
Oxlade-Chamberlain played almost three hours of football over the summer for England (appearing in five matches, though starting only once against France). He was not afforded a period of rest that young players require, risking burn-out, and missed much of Arsenal's pre-season preparations.
|9/1||Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is 9/1 with William Hill to score the last goal in Arsenal v West Brom|
Widely regarded as a grounded and unassuming young man, Oxlade-Chamberlain is not considered part of the Baby Bentley boom; rather, his slump could be attributed to a desire to add more strings to his bow, to focus so much on the weaknesses of his game that he has forgotten to do the basics that make him such a lethal player. Perhaps he has even shunned them.
It is possible that he has embraced the defensive philosophies of Roy Hodgson and Steve Bould a little too much, that he is overly concerned with work rate, shape and positioning (which could be backed up by the four tackles and six interceptions that he registered against Olympiakos) and has lost some of the destructive abandon that previously characterised him.
If Oxlade-Chamberlain can claim one success this season, it may be the form of Theo Walcott. The 19-year-old was seen as a signing that would either wake Walcott from his slumber or, failing that, usurp him. Walcott's six goals and six assists in his last seven appearance suggest that he has done the former but is there anyone who can, in turn, spark the Ox back to life?
Oxlade-Chamberlain is another example of Wenger buying potential for the future when established quality is required for the here and now, as Arsenal's current position of 10th in the league table will attest, and, while the starlet stutters, so do the Gunners. Though it would be foolhardy to give up on the youngster, he must start to prove that he warrants the hype that surrounds him.
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