Until his recent performances, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had become somewhat of a forgotten figure this season.
A knee injury suffered in the surprise opening day defeat to Aston Villa ruled “The Ox” out for much of a campaign in which Arsenal, to the surprise of many, have mounted a credible challenge for the Premier League title.
The stunning £42million deadline day capture of Mesut Ozil and the Gunners blistering early season form had largely overshadowed Chamberlain’s absence.
However, since announcing his return with both goals in a 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace at the Emirates last month, Chamberlain has become a regular in Arsene Wenger’s team selections.
Theo Walcott’s cruciate ligament injury has opened up a position out wide, with one former Southampton player’s misfortune granting an opening for another.
It is an opportunity which Chamberlain has seemingly grasped with both hands, with his recent form for the Gunners earning him an international recall for the friendly against Denmark.
The player’s ability to play anywhere across the midfield at this stage of his career is an asset that will likely see Roy Hodgson include him in the 23 man squad to compete in Brazil this summer.
However, versatility can actually be detrimental to a player’s career and the need for the 20-year-old to define himself in one role over the coming years is of the utmost importance.
During his short career with the Gunners to date, Chamberlain has primarily been deployed to great effect by Wenger as a winger.
The power in his running on the ball has earned the youngster the nickname of “The Ox” and also a selection as Hodgson’s wildcard for Euro 2012.
But that is also an attribute that Chamberlain has utilised to great effect from the central midfield area, most recently in the fixtures against Coventry City and Crystal Palace.
In the aftermath of the victory over the Sky Blues, the youngster revealed his desire to make the central role his own in the coming years.
In an interview with the Daily Mail, Chamberlain stated: “I don’t know whether I will end up there, that’s for Arsene Wenger to decide, but it’s definitely something I’m excited about the prospect of doing.”
The versatility in his game is an asset that will likely earn Chamberlain more playing time at such a crucial time of his footballing development, but it is an attribute that he cannot afford to let define his career.
The warning signs should be evident in the career of fellow English midfielder James Milner. An industrious player capable of fulfilling any role across the entire midfield, the former Leeds, Newcastle and Aston Villa player has been unable to cement a consistent position for his country or current club Manchester City. Without the definition of one clear role, Milner has fallen into the trap of becoming a utility player and suffered as a result. Although he has clearly demonstrated his merits as a footballer, his versatility has ultimately proven a hindrance rather than a help.
Parallels can also be drawn to Phil Jones’ start at Manchester United. Signed from Blackburn Rovers in 2011, Jones initially impressed with his ability to seamlessly switch from central defence to midfield. However, his form dipped as product of this lack of a consistent role and question marks remain over where his long term future on the pitch lies.
Like Chamberlain, Jones’ career will benefit from a judgement on the matter being made in the coming years, ideally sooner rather than later.
For “The Ox” however, it appears that his manager has already decided upon the player’s long term role at the Gunners.
In several interviews, Wenger has outlined his intention to mould Chamberlain in to a central figure in his side. After the Crystal Palace result, he likened his attributes to those of Steven Gerrard and said that “certainly in a few years he will be a central midfielder.”
From other comments made by the Frenchman, clearly the Arsenal manager agrees with the need for Chamberlain to assert himself in a single role. But for now, Wenger sees the youngster’s versatility as great route to further his footballing experience.
Speaking after the FA Cup 4th Round victory over Coventry in January, Wenger spoke on Chamberlain’s future and argued that “it is good for his education to play on the left, right or centrally, but after the age of 23 or 24 he will settle into a position.”
For the moment then, Arsenal and England fans will continue to see “The Ox” adopt numerous roles across the midfield as he continues to develop his all round game.
But under Wenger’s tutelage and long-term vision, Chamberlain looks set to avoid the fate of becoming a victim of his own versatility. By the time of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, Arsenal and England fans may have witnessed the youngster’s evolution into a dominant central midfielder.