07 March 2014

Oy, Everton. Mind the Ox.

When we're still reeling a bit from the news that Jack Wilshere will be out after suffering a Hodgson—the highly specific medical diagnosis that is sure to be in all the best peer-reviewed medical journals shortly—it's easy to overlook the crisitunity that this presents. With Wilshere and Ramsey gone, and with the Arteta-Flamini pivot a bit too static for my liking (and that of many others), my thoughts turn to returning Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to the defensive midfield. While he's only played through the middle once this season, and against Crystal Palace at that, there's enough there to suggest that it's a role he can do well with. Palace may not have the personnel to play Pulis's defense as he prefers, but two goals is nothing to turn one's nose up against, regardless of the opponent.  As we go up ahead Everton, another well-organized defensive unit, Ox's pace, dribble, and directness would be welcome factors in diversifying and adding verve to an attack that too often relies on passing around to lull defenses into dropping their guard.

Playing through the middle would provide Ox a platform from which to launch the kind of quick counter-attacks that we've too often lacked in recent weeks. Picture him picking up the ball deep in our half and turning to bomb up field with teammates filling channels on the flanks—Podolski or Cazorla on the left, Giroud or Sanogo up the middle, along with Rosický and Özil, and Gnabry on the right. Ox's speed slicing up the middle of an unsettled Everton defense could be just the tonic we need to soothe our jangled nerves and create the kind of clear chances we've sought in vain recently. After all, for as much as we'll miss Wilshere, what we really seem to have missed is those runs that start from deep and that catch opponents when they've pressed higher up the pitch.

Against Crystal Palace, Ox played a bit conservatively, hewing close to Arteta in a more-defensive role, before bombing forward more frequently and with greater aplomb in the second half with two goals to show for his efforts. Going in against Everton, I would imagine him playing a similar role, eschewing the attack early on in order to get a sense for some of Everton's proclivities. Later into the match, then, he should have a stronger sense of how Everton has set up and where he can maneuver. The likely absence of Jagielka might create some moments of disorder, especially if McCarthy or Barry push up field in attack, and this stretch of space could then offer Ox the seams that he loves to run into. The suggestion that Tim Howard, one of the Prem's most-consistent keepers, might be rested in favor of Joel Robles. Not to underestimate Robles, but he's conceded in each of his three appearances to date, against Sunderland, Southampton, and Swansea, and I like our chances against him.

If you're not quite keen on the idea of Ox through the middle, there's room on the wing for him, which might make better use of his pace, if not his directness. Coming on against Stoke, and against a Stoke that was defending a lead at home, he nonetheless found his way in behind their back four on a number of occasions and might have created the equalizer had Sanogo done better on the finish. This would then all but force us to use the Arteta-Flamini pivot. This might be wise for how it can help to shut down Lukaku, but I do have my concerns about this blunts our own attack. If we're going to see Ox on the wing, then perhaps Rosický could pair with Arteta or Flamini in order to provide some forward-thinking. Then, with Ox on the right flank, defenses will have to mind his runs down the side and into the center. His understanding with Sanogo already looks strong, as evinced by some of their link-ups in previous matches such as against Liverpool and Bayern. As a side-note, I wonder if Sanogo is ready for open his account on Saturday.

The risk of playing him on the wing—or reward, depending—is that it would pit him more-directly against Leighton Baines. Who claims the advantage? On one hand, Baines would have to mind Ox and be far more cautious about pressing up the pitch, and his passing and service might suffer. Baines would have to think twice about taking set-pieces because the urgency around getting back would grow that much more. On the other hand, Baines might just shut Ox down, tracking his runs and denying him any service, and whatever threat Ox had posed from the flank is gone. If this means they effectively cancel out, who ends up with the upper hand?

One thing's certain: we had better see Ox from the start on Saturday. He very nearly saved us a game in only 15 minutes of action against Stoke. He was a man of the match against Crystal Palace and Liverpool, and I'm feeling bold enough to predict that he'll make some hay on Saturday, whether he's skirting the edges of Everton's defense or cutting its heart wide-open.