Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was fast-becoming the forgotten man at Anfield but a recent star turn in their Champions League away win over Genk back in October reminded everyone he could still fulfill that early promise.
His final days at Arsenal, whom he joined as a teenager from boyhood club Southampton, saw him play in a multitude of roles under Arsene Wenger, including at right wing-back.
Being a consummate professional and a team player, the England international took it all in his stride, but deep down inside he wanted to be a specialist rather than being seen as multifunctional.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong being versatile and capable of playing in numerous positions, but no footballer really wants to be typecast as a ‘jack of all trades’ and assigned the utility man role.
Oxlade-Chamberlain was no exception and when Liverpool, the club where idol Steven Gerrard wrote history, approached offering him midfield exclusivity, he didn’t need a second invitation.
Since joining, manager Jurgen Klopp has been true to his word. To date, the 26-year-old hasn’t started a game in defence with the majority of his 62 appearances coming in central midfield, as for where he’s been least used, that would be on the flanks like in today’s win at Bournemouth but the individual output remained constant.
A proactive alternative
What’s remarkable is none of this should come as a surprise; Oxlade-Chamberlain has now bagged 10 goals for Liverpool, and five of them have been struck from outside the area with the most recent coming in the League Cup against his former club. But what’s amazing is the paucity of goals from distance within the Liverpool team; you wouldn’t describe anyone playing in the middle for Klopp as true goalscorers but, again, it could be due to their assigned roles.
Oxlade-Chamberlain has that long-range ability in his arsenal, so it’s natural for him to shoot when in striking distance. That first goal in Belgium – which broke the deadlock – happened to be the first time a Liverpool midfielder scored from outside the box since his own effort in their Champions League quarter-final first-leg win over Manchester City two seasons ago.
His presence, after recovering from a serious knee injury, must give Klopp some food for thought. He naturally tends to be cautious when constructing his midfield, the go-to triumvirate – inside a 4-3-3 shape – is Fabinho, Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum (with James Milner an alternative for one of the latter two).
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Given their safety-first instincts, they’ve seldom contributed to Liverpool’s attack. In terms of creating or finishing, between the aforementioned trio it’s one goal and one assist across the Reds’ opening nine Premier League outings this season. Add to that zero goals and one assist in three Champions League games.
If we break it down further; no one is averaging more shots on goal per 90 than Oxlade-Chamberlain (2.5) despite the ex-Arsenal man only making five league starts to date. Ball-carrying is also part of Oxlade-Chamberlain’s repertoire. He’s averaging 3.7 dribbles per 90 minutes in the Premier League, with Wijnaldum second best among Liverpool midfielders on 2.1. Such discrepancy can only be explained in the individual characteristics of each player.
It’s also easy to understand why Klopp was keen to add Oxlade-Chamberlain to his squad. With a mouthwatering fixture against Tottenham Hotspur on the horizon, plus games across various competitions arriving thick and fast, there’s a ready-made alternative to playing it safe.
A manager’s dream
Case study: Bournemouth (A)
To say December will be a busy month for Liverpool is an understatement. The Reds are scheduled to navigate nine matches across three different competitions meaning Klopp will be calling upon the full extent of his squad. Because their scheduled participation at this year’s Fifa Club World Cup finals in Qatar clashes with a Carabao Cup quarter-final tie at Aston Villa, which takes place less than 24 hours before, the Premier League leaders have undertaken the rare approach of fielding two different sides as they look to add more silverware to the Anfield trophy room.
This is where having someone like Oxlade-Chamberlain comes in handy. He was an unused substitute against Merseyside rivals Everton to kick-start the month, with Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino initially sharing the bench with him, before Klopp entrusted him to start on the left flank in their meeting with Bournemouth where again he put on an unfused display which his manager no doubt appreciates wholeheartedly.
15 – Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is the 15th different player to score a Premier League goal for Liverpool this season, as many as they had in the whole of last season (excl. OGs). Apportion. pic.twitter.com/pRpS39LWgj
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 7, 2019
Oxlade-Chamberlain would pounce 10 minutes before the half-time interval to put Liverpool in front. His first Premier League goal since January 2018 (against Manchester City and in the process becoming the club’s 15 goalscorer in the league this season. It capped off another energetic display from the former Saints man who proved effective at both ends of the pitch. Naby Keita, another in danger of becoming forgotten, and Salah – who scored his first away goal this season – completed the scoring in a comfortable 3-0 win at Dean Court which ensured Liverpool are Christmas number one.
Goalscoring threat aside, the Ox – as he’s affectionately known – as touched upon, is a speedster full of energy, making him ideal to play between the midfield and forward lines and instigate Klopp’s pressing game. So nothing is truly lost with him around.
In terms of interceptions per 90 in the league, he’s ahead on 1.4, and he’s averaging 37.8 passes which puts him behind his fellow midfielders. But you get the feeling his natural athleticism, which makes him a perfect all-rounder, will supercede everything. Although he’s found a home in Liverpool’s midfield, that hasn’t stopped Klopp from utilising him elsewhere; so far he’s featured in either flank (either deep or further up) as well as playing in a deep-lying forward role.
"He offers something totally different."
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) October 23, 2019
A notable example came in the recent 1-1 draw at Manchester United, when Oxlade-Chamberlain came off the bench and took up a wide berth as Klopp altered his formation into a 4-4-2. This paid dividends as they left Old Trafford with a point when a first league defeat in 2019/20 was on the cards. Adam Lallana may have grabbed the goal, but Oxlade-Chamberlain had a marked effect on the game when he came on.
“Once he gets into these pockets – James Milner mentioned it – in behind the opposition’s midfield, he can dribble, he can turn, he can shoot and face,” Rio Ferdinand told BT Sport after Liverpool’s 4-1 win at Genk. “It’s a great position. It’s a bad place for the opposition midfielders or centre-halves because they can’t go out and meet him, he turns, he can shoot, he can pass, he has the options, he can dribble.”
He may need to bide his time before genuinely feeling he can hold down a regular starting berth at Anfield. However, that day may not be too far away. Klopp is not averse to playing aggressively on the front foot with two number eights and if his day does come, Oxlade-Chamberlain – who was once written off – would complete a comeback befitting of the club’s history. But for now, expect him to do a job wherever he’s fielded. And that could ultimately make the difference as Liverpool compete on multiple fronts.