28 February 2014

Ox's England call-up and Nasri's France fall-out

There is a pair of contrasting stories out in the last few days that, to me, serves as a bit of a parable for young footballers as they consider the various paths to glory that present themselves. On one hand, we have the path paved with gold bricks at the end of which sparkle countless trophies, gleaming, blinding in all of their glory. On the other, we have a tougher road, one made of less-gilded material and that often winds around corners that obscure its end-point. The first one beckons, siren-like, with promises of honours for player and for team, not to mention contract-riches galore. The second one challenges and demands to look within and ask themselves what kind of player they hope to me—what kind of player they're willing to work to become. And so I present to you the contrasting tales of Samir Nasri and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

Nasri was a bright but largely unheralded player for Marseille when Arsène secured his transfer in 2008, a four-year deal reportedly worth some £12m. In the ensuing few years, he drew raves for his dribbling and creative abilities and looked to be a linchpin in an Arsenal midfield that looked to be ready to dominate the Prem. He was starting to look like one of France's best young footballers. However, we all know what happened next. Man City came along and signed him in 2011 for a transfer-fee in the realm of £25m. He went on to share in the joys of Man City's 2012 Prem title but has seen his own personal star start to lose its lustre. At Arsenal, he could rely on regular starts and a featured role in the offense, and in his final season delivered 10 goals and 8 assists. However, the club itself finished fourth. Making the switch to Man City paid off almost immediately—he actually made more appearances (45) than he had the season before for Arsenal (44). Even if his personal stats dipped—5 goals and 5 assists—he could at least claim to have made a respectable contribution to the club's success. However, The longer-term trade-off yields mixed results. Pilloried by the Arsenal faithful and accepted if not embraced by Man City's fans, Nasri's form has continued to fall. More often than not, he appears as an "impact sub", but this has not been enough to see him continue the trajectory that made him a target for Arsenal and then for Man City.

In fact, his fall has been so marked that, despite apparently learning a lesson from being left off of France's 2010 World Cup squad (which he called a "big slap in the face"). A player once compared to French legend Zinedine Zidane now risks missing out on World Cup 2014, having been left out of the French call-up for a friendly tune-up with Holland. Speaking his selections, Didier Deschamps was elusive but said "I can't tell you how critical it is to be in this squad," which suggests that this match is more than just a friendly; it may be a tune-up and final casting-call for the squad itself.  Considering that Nasri also failed to distinguish himself in his last international appearance when France lost to Ukraine, it looks as if Nasri may miss out on a second consecutive cup. With a dozen Prem matches left to be played and inconsistent playing time, it looks unlikely that Nasri will get a chance to impress either Deschamps or Pellegrini enough to reverse his decline, not that I feel too much sympathy for the man. He made his choice and shared in the immediate, short-term glory that followed. If it turns out to have been fool's gold, so be it.

Contrast his fortunes then with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. At just 20 years of age, he's already drawing rave reviews and comparisons of his own, in his case to Steven Gerrard. Whereas Nasri looks like he'll miss World Cup 2014, Ox has been called up for England's friendly with Denmark next week in an indication that he may figure in Roy Hodgson's squad for the World Cup. Despite having missed half the season due to a knee injury, Ox has experienced a stratospheric rise of the sort that has people pencilling him as a replacement for Gerrard for England and as a center-piece for Arsenal for years to come. Because of that injury, it's difficult if not impossible to compare stats with Nasri, who has been injury-free. However, a quick glimpse at financials suggests that, already, there's little to separate them. At his peak in August 2011, Nasri's market-value was rated at some £22.9m by transfermarkt.de, but this figure has slumped to as low as £16.7m in September 2013 before rising again to £19.4m. By contrast, Ox's valuation has surged over the same period to £15 (okay, 14.96). What's more, the contrast in esteem may be harder to quantify but just as vital. Nasri is seen by many as petulant, unreliable, and personally repugnant—and that may be coming from his supporters. Ox, on the other hand, comes across as gracious, friendly, willing to work. Without making too much of it. losing Nasri may have dented Arsenal's ambitions in the short-term, but the longer term trade-off seems to be paying dividends already. He's part of a young, determined core of British players that includes Wilshere, Walcott, Gibbs, Jenkinson, and Ramsey

This is not to say that Nasri's footballing career is circling the toilet. He's 26, and there's plenty of time for him to reverse the trend. For all I know or can predict, he'll go on to feature for Man City's run-in and for France's World Cup adventure in Brazil. However, the difference between his status and that of Ox seemed note-worthy. Nasri isn't even the only former Gunner who might be regretting the move he made away from the Emirates. After all, players come to Arsenal for more than just a chance at glory. As Nasri himself said upon coming over from Marseille, "The fact that Arsène Wenger gives great opportunities to young players is very important for me. Arsène has a great reputation and he is one of the best managers in the world. He has proved that he puts a lot of confidence in the young players and he gives them a chance." He had his chance, and he took it but then traded it for the riches on offer at the Etihad.

Fortunately for us, at least from where I stand, Ox has also leapt at a similar chance to join Arsenal and looks like he's ready to make good on his promise, in the process working towards becoming the kind of superstar Arsène is famous for creating. Nasri may have presumed that his superstardom had already been achieved after winning a title with Man City. That arrogance is now an albatross around his neck. Knowing now how his move has turned out, would he take it all back and stay with Arsenal? Would van Persie or Fabregas? It's hard to say. They've each achieved a kind of glory that no player currently at Arsenal has known. However, had these and others stayed, they might have achieved the same kind of team glory that they now possess while burnishing it with some claim to the mantle of club-legend in the process. Should Ox partake of some kind of club glory in this or in seasons to come, the contrast between his stature and that of players like Nasri will sharpen further still.

Right. Well, we have a match coming up with a chance to put a little more space between us and Nasri's current club, if only temporarily. Pardon the digression away from the focus on Stoke.