LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 06: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain of Arsenal is brought down in the area by Djamel Mesbah of AC Milan to win a penalty during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 second leg match between Arsenal and AC Milan at Emirates Stadium on March 6, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Arsene Wenger took some unfair stick when he bought Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, but the England U-21 international has shown that Wenger was right to spend money on him.
Six months ago when Arsene Wenger signed Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain from Southampton for a fee rumoured to be £15m, many Arsenal fans were incensed. All summer, Arsenal had been linked with defenders like Gary Cahill and Phil Jones and midfielders like Santi Cazorla and Juan Mata. Their third signing, the biggest to date, was another 17-year-old. When Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri left, that anger was only multiplied, especially when Wenger mentioned him as an internal replacement for Fabregas, along with Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey.
Oxlade-Chamberlain was again involved in one of Wenger's lowest moments as a manager, when he was taken off to general disapproval against Manchester United. This time, though, Arsenal fans weren't thinking of how they criticized Wenger for spending money on a young player; instead, they were outraged that he was being removed for the type of player they often want Wenger to buy: an experienced, Champions League quality player. The double standard was best shown by professional flip-flopper and all around berk Piers Morgan, who called it the worst decision he's even seen Wenger make. Which is what he also said when Oxlade-Chamberlain was purchased. The reaction, along with Oxlade-Chamberlain's peformance, consigned the youngster to Arsenal's starting lineup and Andrei Arshavin to the bench, and, ultimately, Russia. The decision to buy Oxlade-Chamberlain, though, has been fully vindicated since he became a more regular starting player.
The thing that one notices about Oxlade-Chamberlain the most is the fact that he is totally unfazed by any situation. He made his Premier League debut in the 8-2 humiliation at Old Trafford, and his first start against the same opposition. In the latter, he was a strong performer from the beginning of the match to the end, giving Patrice Evra and Phil Jones a torrid time in wide areas with his pace and fantastic dribbling ability. Lesser players might have, understandably, faded as the match wore on, but instead, Oxlade-Chamberlain made his best contribution at the end of this playing time, setting up Robin van Persie's equalizer with an excellent reverse pass that took out Antonio Valencia and Chris Smalling.
It's the fearlessness and excellent range of passing that makes Oxlade-Chamberlain a complete player. From brief glimpses in the Carling Cup and against Swansea, Leeds and Olympiacos, we could already see his ability to beat a man, shoot with power and accuracy and play very accurate crosses. His passing, though, and defensive nous sometimes left something to be desired, and were probably some of the reasons why Oxlade-Chamberlain didn't feature much in the first half of the season. Oxlade-Chamberlain has improved on both, though, in the 6 months that he has been at Arsenal and all of his attributes were on display yesterday in an unfamiliar deep-lying midfield role. Oxlade-Chamberlain did come through as a central midfielder, but not in the deeper role that he played yesterday. That, however, didn't seem to matter as he took to the position with aplomb. Defensively, he tracked back, made tackles and his energy was crucial to Arsenal's pressing.
After he went off, Arsenal's midfield lost the structure and energy that it had while he was on, and Milan gradually took control of the second half. He was also crucial to Arsenal's attacking play; his pace and dribbling ability made Arsenal's attack more direct, his range of passing was excellent, and he assisted for two of Arsenal's goals, with his corner setting up Laurent Koscielny's header and his run from midfield eventually won a penalty when he was sandwiched by Antonio Nocerino and Djemel Mesbah.
If Arsenal fans needed to be convinced of the talent of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, yesterday should have done it. Not only was he playing an unfamiliar position, but he was also playing, and shining, against a team top of Serie A. We can look back and wonder why Arsene Wenger didn't start Oxlade-Chamberlain in the first leg, and that is a question that should be asked of him, but perhaps instead we should give credit to the Arsenal manager for once again showing that he can still find, and improve, young players of quality.