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Oxlade-Chamberlain’s transfer move is in plain sight as Liverpool decision looms

Liverpool play Southampton in the Premier League at Anfield on Saturday evening, but mercifully the Bantersauruses don’t have much to feed off these days.

After all, none of the 2014 trio who made the switch from St Mary’s to Merseyside are at Anfield any more, with Rickie Lambert long gone and Dejan Lovren and Adam Lallana departing last summer with a Premier League winners’ medal clinking against a Champions League one in their back pockets.

Nathaniel Clyne, the 2015 vintage in the Southampton-Liverpool story, burned briefly before injuries and Trent Alexander-Arnold meant he faded from view, and we all know why Virgil van Dijk won’t be on the pitch this weekend.

That only leaves Sadio Mane then, although the Senegalese – a Liverpool signing from the Saints in 2016 – is in the grip of such poor form that you wouldn’t be totally surprised if he didn’t start against his former club.

Liverpool’s fondess for signing players from Southampton has been well documented

He was named in the team that would have played Manchester United last weekend, but at the moment that might have been more in hope than expectation.

Indeed, had circumstances been a little different then Southampton could well have had more former or loaned out Liverpool players on the pitch than vice versa, but Danny Ings is still ruled out through injury and Takumi Minamino is ineligible to face his parent club.

So that’s that then. One-nil to Liverpool in the great Reds-Saints player-off, because there seems very little chance of there being a second ex-Southampton man in the Liverpool lineup, from the start at least.

***

Of course Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain doesn’t ever get mentioned in the same breath as the players Liverpool signed directly from Southampton because he came via seven years and 198 appearances for Arsenal.

It is now 10 years since the lively teenager swapped League One for the Premier League when he left a Saints side he’d just helped to promotion to join the Gunners, for whom he made his debut in their 8-2 defeat at Manchester United.

Despite that baptism of fire he’d go on to prove that he belonged in this esteemed company, and less than a year later he was in the England squad, going on to start their opening game of Euro 2012, the 1-1 draw with France in Donetsk. He wasn’t yet 19.

Back then Oxlade-Chamberlain justified the excitement around him because while he did seem raw, there were also some incredible gifts to tap into.

He began to get a reputation as a valuable squad player for Arsene Wenger, injecting pace into games where needed, often late on.

Wenger saw Oxlade-Chamberlain as an important squad player for Arsenal
Wenger saw Oxlade-Chamberlain as an important squad player for Arsenal

There were suggestions that there was a clause in his Arsenal contract that meant the club had to pay Southampton £10,000 every time he appeared for 20 minutes or more of regulation time, but even if that wasn’t true then you could see how the theory came about. He was making impacts in short bursts.

It was the same for England too, where he really announced himself when scoring a brilliant goal against Brazil in a glamorous Maracana friendly in 2013.

Yet despite these impressive feats there were always questions over what to do with him, and suspicions that he just wasn’t quite ready to be a regular starter for club and country, and if he did start, then where?

There were the obvious, lazy comparisons to Theo Walcott, who had also left Southampton for Arsenal at a young age and gone into the England squad, but Oxlade-Chamberlain seemed to have more of a football understanding than the winger/forward.

He could and usually would be played wide because he was so quick, but he longed to exert more control over a game and was often seen drifting inside bursting past players through the middle.

Oxlade-Chamberlain scored a stunning goal for England in the Maracana
Oxlade-Chamberlain scored a stunning goal for England in the Maracana

After that Brazil goal there were pointed comments from his father Mark, himself a former England international, who insisted: “He plays wide right, but that’s his third-best position; midfield or playing behind the striker is his best position.”

Over half a decade of a longing to play at the centre of things had begun, and it was clear who his inspiration was.

***

Like a lot of footballers of his generation, Oxlade-Chamberlain looks up to Steven Gerrard. It really would have been impossible not to.

If you’re a young player looking for inspiration then the swashbuckling feats that he got up to in the 2000s would be your go-to content, but his own positional uncertainty is often forgotten about.

One of the reasons Gerrard’s goalscoring record isn’t perhaps as good as many would expect is because he started life at Liverpool as a right-back, and then latterly a defensive midfielder. He scored just once in his first 48 senior games for the Reds.

Then even when he started becoming more of an attacking force he was often doing so from right midfield. That is where he started the 2006 FA Cup final that now bears his name.

Steven Gerrard wasn't always the central midfielder people make him out to be
Steven Gerrard wasn’t always the central midfielder people make him out to be

But when we think of Gerrard we think of those driving runs through the centre of the pitch, and of being in the thick of the action and bending the game to his will. Oxlade-Chamberlain seemingly does anyway.

Think back to when he’d just turned in a brilliant performance at left wing-back as Arsenal had beaten Chelsea in the 2017 FA Cup final, and Rio Ferdinand and his fellow BT Sport pundits asked him whether or not this could be a new position for him going forward.

“I don’t know, really,” was the dismissive answer.

“Playing for a team like Arsenal, it ends up being more of a right-wing job. I get the ball from deeper and the plays into my hands more.

“At the end of the day, it’s given me minutes and I’m not one to complain.

“But, the centre mid role… I’ve always wanted to be Steven Gerrard, so I’ve still got a hope of that.”

Those words were dredged up again three months later when Oxlade-Chamberlain joined Liverpool, rebuffing what had seemed a nailed on transfer to Chelsea, with the desire and expectation of playing in central midfield said to have been a key factor in his move.

The same was said of James Milner two years previously, and a year later he was a left-back.

***

In these great tribal social media days, many Arsenal supporters did their best to make it clear that they had absolutely no problem with selling Oxlade-Chamberlain to Liverpool, referencing their delight at the £35million fee.

Injuries had meant that many had run out of patience with a player very much seen as a utility man, with a knee problem which ruled him out of the first half of the 2013/14 season seemingly becoming the gateway to numerous month or two month absences at key times.

As with many new Liverpool signings, it took Oxlade-Chamberlain a while to settle in to Klopp's side
As with many new Liverpool signings, it took Oxlade-Chamberlain a while to settle in to Klopp’s side

Again, such is the way of these things, the ill-feeling towards the now former Gunner continued into his first few months at Liverpool, with a video made by an Arsenal supporter highlighting the various mistakes and missteps Oxlade-Chamberlain made on his full Liverpool debut, a League Cup defeat at Leicester, going viral.

That game would prove to be the only one of his first 10 Liverpool appearances that came from the start, with many again choosing to view that as evidence that he had swapped his utility status in north London for the same thing on Merseyside, but that idea didn’t reckon with Jurgen Klopp’s methods.

At the same time the Reds manager was drip feeding Oxlade-Chamberlain into the side he was barely picking another summer signing, Andy Robertson, with the £8million capture from Hull watching on as Alberto Moreno regained his place as first-choice left-back. Robertson only played three times before a Moreno injury in December.

It was an approach Klopp would repeat the following year with Fabinho, who was glacially introduced too, and in all cases it has proven to be the right way of doing things as all of the players began to understand what was required of them.

If there was a penny dropping moment for Oxlade-Chamberlain it was surely the 4-3 win over Manchester City in January 2018 when, picked from the start to run through the middle of the visiting midfield, he did just that in the ninth minute before spearing a shot into the bottom corner.

Oxlade-Chamberlain started to really find his feet at the start of 2018
Oxlade-Chamberlain started to really find his feet at the start of 2018

An undoubtedly intelligent player and person, the realisation that he was ‘getting it’ became a very exciting one for Liverpool, who were clearly moving into a new phase of the Klopp plan minus Philippe Coutinho – who was impressively defended by Oxlade-Chamberlain when pressed on his future in a live Sky Sports interview just weeks before he left – but having gained Van Dijk.

The most attacking arm of the hard-working Klopp midfield, Oxlade-Chamberlain’s stock rose further with a brilliant goal against Manchester City in the Champions League quarter-finals, setting up Roma in the semis.

Then everything changed.

***

It was the night that Reds fan Sean Cox was brutally attacked outside Anfield so it is important not to go overboard with the devastating nature of Oxlade-Chamberlain’s cruciate ligament rupture, but it was a sickener.

At a time when he was threatening to become the player he has always had the gifts to be, progress was suddenly halted in the cruellest and most difficult to comprehend manner.

A month after the injury he was pictured in tears on the pitch in Kiev after the Champions League final, and you got the impression they weren’t just because of the defeat.

Oxlade-Chamberlain cut a disconsolate figure in Kiev
Oxlade-Chamberlain cut a disconsolate figure in Kiev

So began an intense recovery period that basically wrote off the 2018/19 season, in which he managed just 19 minutes of action across two matches. He was on the bench for the Champions League final and got to lift the trophy, but he’d have wanted more.

No-one was giving up though.

Liverpool gave him a new contract at the start of the 2019/20 season as a show of faith in a player that Klopp certainly still believed in. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s admission that it was “a risk” perhaps showcased some nerves on his part, but if the aim was to motivate then it certainly worked.

His 43 appearances across the whole of last season is the second highest tally of his career, with the eight goals scored – including a remarkable strike at Genk in the Champions League – his best return since the League One days as he also got back in the England squad.

Playing in 30 of the 38 Premier League games, he thoroughly deserved his winners’ medal, the highlights coming with goals at Bournemouth, West Ham and at home to Southampton as the title hammer was put down.

The disjointed nature of last season means that Liverpool may never truly get the acclaim that their campaign deserves – they won 26 of their first 27 league games and spent the pandemic hiatus 25 points clear at the top – and perhaps Oxlade-Chamberlain’s finest performance gets caught up in that.

He was superb in the centre of midfield against Atletico Madrid in March last year
He was superb in the centre of midfield against Atletico Madrid in March last year

That is because it came on March 11, 2020, when his superb display in central midfield against Atletico Madrid is now largely forgotten because of everything that game came to represent, still the most recent one in front of a full Anfield crowd, and incredibly controversially at that.

Liverpool lost, football stopped, and suddenly uncertainty was abound.

***

It was Oxlade-Chamberlain who scored the final goal in front of the Kop on the night the Reds got to lift the trophy after a 5-3 win over Chelsea last July, and perhaps he more than anyone would come to rue the curtailed pre-season that was to follow.

A seemingly innocuous knee injury just before the current campaign, perhaps when he didn’t have his usual summer fitness levels, suddenly ruled him out for half the season, and he didn’t appear until the 7-0 win at Crystal Palace just before Christmas. The game before it all went wrong.

Not that Oxlade-Chamberlain is to blame for Liverpool’s 2021 slump of course, he just hasn’t looked capable of doing anything to prevent it from happening.

He’s now made 14 appearances this season, with 12 of those coming from the bench as he’s totaled just 274 minutes, only 26 of those coming in the last two months.

Oxlade-Chamberlain has struggled to make an impact this season
Oxlade-Chamberlain has struggled to make an impact this season

In his two starts, the 1-0 defeats to Southampton and Burnley, he was substituted before the hour mark, while after coming on just after the hour in the home losses to Brighton and Chelsea he looked so out of step with his teammates.

In his 10 Premier League appearances this season Liverpool have won just three, and with an increased focus on a midfield unit that has looked so at odds with their previous selves, his lack of contribution is beginning to look startling.

Of course injuries elsewhere have had a huge effect on that, but when both Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita have been needed to step up and force their way into Klopp’s starting XI both players have been left wanting.

So for Oxlade-Chamberlain at least, the visit of Southampton to Anfield on Saturday could perhaps bring with it a realisation.

Does he need to leave Liverpool and move to a club of the Saints’ standing in order to resurrect his career?

He can only look at what moving to West Ham has done for Jesse Lingard, and the fact that these days England squads are full of players from the likes of Aston Villa, Everton, Wolves and, yes, Southampton.

Oxlade-Chamberlain is nowhere near Gareth Southgate’s plans at present, and while that isn’t the be all and end all he is sure to wonder what has to happen for him to get back into them. He has been tentatively linked with Borussia Dortmund, but that just doesn’t seem to scan.

It is still more than likely that he stays at Liverpool.

Klopp is fiercely loyal to his boys – perhaps too loyal at times – so he’ll probably want to keep him, and it is starting to look as though his sidel could be involved in one of European football’s lesser competitions next season, bringing valuable game-time for Oxlade-Chamberlain, Keita and others.

But with Gini Wijnaldum leaving, others on the fringes perhaps doing so too, Milner getting even older and Jordan Henderson’s injury issues flaring up again, is it time for a complete revamp of the midfield?

And time to say goodbye to a prodigiously talented, unlucky player in Oxlade-Chamberlain, who could just find that a change of scenery is what he needs?




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