By Liam Twomey
After the almost comical farce of Kim Kallstrom’s deadline day move from Spartak Moscow to the London Colney treatment table, Arsene Wenger needed someone to remind the world that injuries have not completely deprived Arsenal of match-winning midfield quality. Against Crystal Palace at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain delivered exactly what was required.
For 46 minutes it looked as if Tony Pulis might succeed in nullifying the Premier League’s third most prolific attack. His methods were hardly subtle or easy on the eye, and one suspects Jose Mourinho would not have approved of seeing 10 men almost permanently camped in their own defensive third, but Olivier Giroud was crowded out while Mesut Ozil and Santi Cazorla schemed in vain.
Everything changed, however, with a darting run and finish that highlighted just why Wenger sees Oxlade-Chamberlain’s future as a rampaging central midfielder.
“He has a good long ball, penetration from deep and a good quality to distribute and penetrate individually - certainly he has the same qualities as Steven Gerrard,” the Gunners boss told reporters earlier this month when questioned about the youngster who was nearing a first-team return from the cruciate ligament strain which had sidelined him since August.
High praise indeed but, as Oxlade-Chamberlain raced away from an oblivious Marouane Chamakh before calmly controlling and dispatching Cazorla’s brilliant dinked pass with startling precision and composure beyond Julian Speroni two minutes after half-time, the comparison seemed more than fitting.
Making his professional breakthrough, Oxlade-Chamberlain was identified by some as simply one of the more promising jet-heeled wingers this country tends to produce more regularly than most. His Southampton education and multi-million pound move to Arsenal led to inevitable links with Theo Walcott, but equating the two felt reductive from the start.
Walcott, for all his athletic gifts and vast improvement in recent years, tends to give the impression of a sprinter who has been taught to play football. Oxlade-Chamberlain carries the air of a footballer who just happens to be blessed with formidable pace and acceleration. His skill, vision and game awareness always hinted at greater versatility.
“At the moment, he is still in formation,” Wenger added of Oxlade-Chamberlain. “It is good for his education as he plays left, right and central when needed. After 23 or 24 you settle in a definite position.”
In the short term, the great paradox is that Oxlade-Chamberlain’s return is all the more timely for Arsenal and England in part because of the devastating misfortune of Walcott’s knee injury.
Despite an outstanding cameo performance through the middle against Brazil at the Maracana last June, Roy Hodgson still views Oxlade-Chamberlain primarily as a weapon out wide, where he impressed even as few other English attackers distinguished themselves at Euro 2012.
But the absences of Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey and Mathieu Flamini through injury and suspension mean Oxlade-Chamberlain will also get the chance to press his claim to a more central role with Arsenal over the coming weeks. Alongside Wilshere against Stoke City in the FA Cup he showed drive and enthusiasm in abundance, even as the duo occasionally left their back four exposed.
And his second goal against Palace – a neat passing exchange with Giroud before driving into the box and firing past Speroni – suggests consistency is the only obstacle to the 20-year-old producing the kind of match-winning displays which earned Ramsey such universal acclaim earlier this season, particularly when partnered with the calming presence of Arteta or tenacity of Flamini.
The question of Oxlade-Chamberlain producing regularly may also go a long way towards determining whether Wenger can end Arsenal’s trophy drought this season. February sees the Gunners take on Liverpool twice, Manchester United and Bayern Munich in crucial games across three competitions.
And with Ramsey set to be out until mid-March and Wilshere’s ankle problems ever-present, Oxlade-Chamberlain may well have to produce his Gerrard impression more often.