08 January 2014

The Ox returns to training, ready to fill the Theo-shaped void

For those despairing after Theo Walcott was ruled out for the rest of the 2013-14 season, and the World Cup to boot, fear not, for waiting in the wings, back in training for the first time since injuring his own knee in week one against Aston Villa, is one Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. While it's too much to hope that he might embrace the symbolism of climbing from the ashes, phoenix-like, against the very club that witnessed his fall, he is one the verge of making his return, predicted tentatively for 18 January, perhaps in time to face Fulham.

I have too much respect for the recently fallen to engage in direct comparisons, and I'm sure we're all well-aware of the Theo-to-Ox comparisons that have been made, so I'll leave that element of the discussion to your memories. Instead, I'll dare to stoke your imaginations. There's another player who once wore the number 14 and who electrified the Emirates with his dazzling pace. More than out-and-out speed, though, Ox reminds me of Henry with his changes of pace and audacious forays on goal, slaloming—or attempting to—just as well as outrunning defender to get his shot or find a teammate for his.

Of course, I don't want to let the hype run away from me. He's 20 and has made only 42 appearances for Arsenal over three years, and so I'm insinuating the comparison, rather than making it outright, because it's based on potential rather than performance. That said, he's delivered some delicious moments already, whether it was his assist to Giroud in that opening-day match with Aston Villa, his sizzling goal against Coventry, or his movement and finish for England against Brazil. Hell, it was only six months ago that Ray Parlour compared the Ox to one of  England's best midfielders, Paul Gascoigne.

Why not? The Ox with the ball at his feet can take the ball directly at, through, and around almost any defender, not just to create his own shot but to find and create chances for others. As his nickname points out, he brings directness, tenacity, and strength to the attack, qualities that are frequently lacking as we look for more balletic, symphonic maneuvers. The Ox's willingness and ability to thrust himself right up the defense's gut could become a game-changing feature as he continues to grow and to explore his potential.

I'm not the first to make such heady comparisons for the man, likening him to Gazza for England or Henry for Arsenal, and I'm sure I won't be the last. However, as trite as it sounds, we don't need him to be Henry. As scintillating as some of his moments have been, the Ox is still learning the game. His return to the training ground, though, is about as welcome as they come. Sure, it might have been nice to have him ready for Aston Villa, but the wisdom being shown in his cautious return should reap handsome rewards in years to come.