Feed the Ox and you will score! Introducing Arsenal's future at centre midfield

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has impressed in the cup competitions this season and could finally come of age at the heart of the Gunners' engine room


It was against AC Milan in a crucial Champions League encounter at Emirates Stadium in 2012 when Arsene Wenger deployed Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in a central midfield role. Wenger, who was without six midfielders for the second leg in north London, took a chance on the young Englishman and was rewarded with a performance greater than his 18 years.

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"For a guy who has never played at the top level in central midfield, he started in a Champions League game and he did well,” said Wenger after the game.

But nearly five years on it appears we are no closer to finding out Oxlade-Chamberlain’s best position at Arsenal. The 23-year-old has made more substitute appearances than starts this season, but his goal and assist tally is the best since he joined the club.

Saturday’s FA Cup fourth round thrashing of Southampton provided exactly the kind of platform for Oxlade-Chamberlain needed to shine on. His long-range passing and bursting runs through the middle once again prompted questions over where his future lies: on the flanks or through the middle?

“I think he’s a good flank player and a good central player,” said Wenger.

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“But the future, personally, I would say is more central than on the flank for him. But when you’re young, you want to push towards the flank. Why? Because playing centrally demands more experience, more demanding, more tactical planning. On the flanks you can be a bit more instinctive. Naturally, I think he is comfortable always being involved in the game.

“When I look back, all the games he’s played centrally he’s done very well.”

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain Arsenal 28012017

Oxlade-Chamberlain is at a crossroads in his career. He’s not an Arsenal regular, yet Wenger affords him just enough game time to keep him happy. The likes of Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and perhaps more surprisingly Alex Iwobi have featured ahead of him this campaign, and he admitted in an interview earlier in the season that he would consider his options in the summer if his situation doesn't change.

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There is no doubt that he possesses all the required qualities to become a top-class central midfielder, and what's not to say he can't follow in the footsteps of Santi Cazorla when the Spaniard eventually leaves Arsenal? 'The Ox' can dribble, distribute, press and defend when needed - all of which are necessary traits in an elite central midfielder. 

He recently confirmed that he has adapted his way of playing this season in a bid to add more goals to his game - and it’s clearly worked.

"This year I've just worked mostly on making runs in behind and trusting the boys to find you with balls over the top," he said.

"In the past, maybe where I've been more of a midfielder than a forward, I was more used to coming to the ball and wanting to get the ball, so I was picking up the ball in deeper positions.

"If you look at all the goalscorers, I think Theo Walcott does it amazingly well - he runs in behind and he finishes.

“That wasn't always a natural part of my game. As I said, being more of a midfielder, I was always more lingering on the edge of the box for the ball to come back out or being the person that's crossing the ball, so I've tried to work on that this year."

If Oxlade-Chamberlain does decide to stay at Arsenal this summer, then he'll know that his patient approach will have to continue. Wenger said at the weekend that he has more attacking options at his disposal then previous years, with the likes of Lucas Perez, Walcott, Danny Welbeck all starring at St Mary's - and Alexis Sanchez providing an impressive cameo appearance after coming on in the second half.

"For a long time we have not had that offensive quality available. The problem will now be to find the right combination and use them well in games, without destroying the balance of the team,” the Frenchman said.

The rotation of Arsenal's attacking players has certainly been to the benefit of Chamberlain so far. His best performances have come in the FA Cup and EFL Cup games, and he generally thrives when he is deployed in his favoured central position. If he can continue to contribute with the same intensity and calibre of performance in every competition he's involved in then it won't be long before he's a regular in this Arsenal and England team.