The 2nd March 2010 marked the professional debut of a baby-faced Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Having broken onto the scene at the tender age of 16, one may assume this was a footballer destined for stardom. But it had not been a simple journey.
Schooled in Portsmouth, Chamberlain’s first big decision was whether he even wanted to be a footballer. He joined Southampton’s famed youth academy shortly after his 7th birthday but was also a gifted Rugby player. Trials at London Irish were offered to the precocious talent however his decision quickly became clear when Saints blocked the move.
The first six years of academy football ran smoothly for Alex as he began to showcase an aptitude for technical flair. Upon entering adolescence however, another stumbling block occurred. With his teammates all shooting up in stature, Chamberlain remained a rather diminutive figure and struggled to compete physically with some of his peers. It is at this point where many academies make the decision to cut players of Chamberlain’s ilk but it speaks to the intelligence and foresight of Southampton that they instead made the decision to nurture his burgeoning panache rather than sever ties.
Matt Crocker had recently been appointed head of the South coasts clubs academy and immediately set about creating an environment where gifted youth players could flourish. Specific drills were designed where Chamberlain could drift in and out of ‘coned off zones’ of the training pitch only he was allowed in. This gave him ample time to receive passes and turn out without the fear of being on the receiving end of a good old English clattering.
He repaid his coaches trust with stunning performances where he would regularly exemplify his speed of thought and pace to leave defenders in his wake. Chamberlain’s swift rise to prominence had also caught the attention of first team manager Nigel Adkins, who promptly beckoned him into the first team set-up.
It would be in the 2010/11 season where Chamberlain would truly burst onto the scene. Featuring in over 40 games in all competitions – and netting 10 goals – the now 17-year old helped Saints to promotion from England’s 3rd division and earned a spot in the League 1 team of the year. His dazzling displays left North London outfit Arsenal in little doubt as they snapped up what they believed was a future England star for a £12 million fee.
Comparisons to Theo Walcott inevitably followed given the Southampton link however what has always set Chamberlain apart is his technical ability. Whilst Walcott was revered for his blistering pace, there is far more of a subtle intelligence to Chamberlain’s game.
It’s here where his career trajectory began to change. The links to Walcott kept coming and given his athletic attributes, the man aptly known now as ‘the Ox’ was pigeonholed into playing as a winger. That is not to say he does not possess the requisite qualities to play out wide, far from it, but one cannot help feeling that the decision was made due to underlying sub-conscious racial stacking.
As much as the Ox now has the build and physical skills of what people inherently associate with a black athlete, the choice to deploy him as a winger totally disregarded his in-game intelligence and technique. Qualities that would see him better placed centrally. People point to injuries and mentality, however, being played out of position has always been Chamberlain’s biggest obstacle in continuing to develop.
So where does he go from here? Chamberlain has one year left on his contract with the Gunners and appears at a crossroads. Like many of his English teammates (think Wilshere, Gibbs, Jenkinson & Chambers) the next career choice will be pivotal in deciding the Ox’s future. Will he be in and out of Arsenal and England sides as a winger who never quite fulfilled his potential? Or would a change of scenery – and perhaps position – reignite his prosperous career?
A rumoured move to Liverpool has been sounded out and with it come both pros and cons. Manger Jürgen Klopp has favoured a 4-3-3 formation since his arrival at Anfield with Mané and Coutinho often utilised as wide forwards. Chamberlain could look to international compatriot Adam Lallana as a player who has shone in one of the three central positions and this may be an encouraging factor. What attracts Klopp to Chamberlain is his ability to play his popularised high-intensity football and how he moves with the ball, breaking down opposition lines as he goes.
The issue for Chamberlain is again that he would not be a surefire starter. Now 23, it is integral that he is playing regularly if he still harbours ambitions of being a consistent name on the international stage. With the arrivals of players such as Granit Xhaka in the summer, the path to a central midfield birth looks well and truly blocked at Arsenal and, for that reason, perhaps a move away is his only option in the search for progression.
In years to come will we be talking about Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the England great who could take games by the scruff of the neck? Or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, that quick winger who was just ‘alright’?