Arsenal midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is without a doubt one of the hottest young prospects currently operating within the Premier League, but does his ability to play in more than one position well do him more harm than good with concerns to his claims of a regular first-team spot?
Whenever a young player manages to break into the starting eleven at a big club, they’re more often than not asked to perform in a role that you would not normally associate with them later on in their career. For instance, at Liverpool, before Steven Gerrard was able to command a regular spot in the middle of midfield alongside Dietmar Hamann, he could often be found at right-back, a position that these days you wouldn’t dream of seeing him play.
Over at Manchester United, both Phil Jones and Chris Smalling could be accused of something similar, with the pair regularly played at right-back as opposed to their natural centre-half positions. In Smalling’s case, it saw him break into Fabio Capello’s England squad on the right side of defence even though that never promised to be where he’d end up playing the majority of his football but it was deemed a necessity in aiding his development at the time as young players need game time more than anything else and he wasn’t going to dislodge Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic or Jonny Evans consistently enough any time soon.
While Jones has laughably been lauded as the long-term heir to Duncan Edwards throne in the Manchester United engine room, he’s played all across the back four, as a holding man and a box-to-box midfielder during his short time at Old Trafford so far. You sense that Sir Alex Ferguson still doesn’t quite know what his best position is, even if many people, like myself, happen to think he’s an accident waiting to happen in defence and has huge potential as a midfielder given his energy and aggressive approach and there’s a worry without a settled position that he could stagnate.
The Arsenal winger now finds himself in a similar quandary but for slightly different reasons to Jones; it’s not that he’s particularly better in one position than another, or that he sees himself as more of something else entirely to what he’s being asked to perform as, it’s that he’s capable of playing extremely well both in the middle of midfield and out on the wing and he’s going to have to make a decision one way or another further down the line.
Theo Walcott’s contractual wrangle at the club this summer has boiled down to one issue above all else and his reluctance to sign a new long-term deal is because he no longer wants to be seen solely as a right winger, rather as more of a central striker.
You could argue it from both perspectives – on the one hand, Walcott has been at the club for six years now and has more than done his time in a slightly unfamiliar position because Wenger felt it would be easier for him to learn the tricks of the trade out wide where he might get slightly more time on the ball than he would in the middle.
However, at 23 years of age, Walcott has never really quite kicked on in terms of his development as many would have hoped and there’s a worry that while his finishing at times can be excellent, that he lacks the positional nous and ability to play hold the ball up which the lone striking role requires, particularly if it’s in a 4-3-3.
The situation has come to a head because Walcott has been so willing in the past to go along with his manager’s wishes but he now wants to revert back to the position he was playing as a youngster and for which initially caught the club’s eye while he was at Southampton, but Wenger clearly feels that he’s not quite ready for the move yet and I’d be inclined to agree with him.
The England national team set-up has a real dearth of talent on the wings at the minute, so much so that the hugely inexperienced 17-year-old Raheem Sterling was called up to the senior squad by boss Roy Hodgson when Walcott pulled out of the squad with illness for the World Cup qualifier against Ukraine. Aside from Aaron Lennon, James Milner and Walcott, there’s not an awful lot of talent about and from which to pick from, so in that respect, Oxlade-Chamberlain more than merits a starting place in the side.
He also proved last term with a mature display at the tip of a midfield three against AC Milan at the Emirates that he is more than capable of occupying a central role with a bustling, busy and energetic performance which boasted a maturity well beyond his years. With Aaron Ramsey still searching for form, Abou Diaby fragile and prone to injury and Jack Wilshere working his way back to full fitness, he could feasibly start to move more into the middle as the season progresses.
The one thing you could say about this Arsenal squad is that it’s overloaded with options down the flanks – Podolski, Gervinho, Walcott, Cazorla and even Arshavin could all feature there while Wenger’s reluctance to invest in another central midfield player in the aftermath of Alex Song’s departure to Barcelona this summer, while at first seen as a huge statement of faith in Diaby, could now equally be seen as one in Oxlade-Chamberlain as a central midfielder.
Every manager loves a versatile player who can provide them with several options, or ‘solutions’ as they’re somewhat pretentiously referred to these days. At this moment in time, Oxlade-Chamberlain will benefit from flitting between roles and learning the disciplines that both require, but sooner or later he will have to choose which position to nail his mast to.
The main problem facing Hodgson in the future is that not enough young English players will be playing regularly football for their clubs in the top flight, but with Oxlade-Chamberlain, the strange situation of a player playing a different role for their club and their country could very much provide a positional headache not only for the hugely experienced manager, but the player himself.
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