06 January 2016

How do you solve a problem like Oxlade-Chamberlain?

 On one hand, he's perfectly capable in one moment of a jaw-dropping goal such as the one against AS Monaco in last February's first-leg debacle, On othe other, he's just as capable of a head-slapping cock-up such as the one against AS Monaco in last February's first-leg debacle. For the first, he revived hope that we could still salvage a point or at least a manageable goal difference going into the second leg. For the second, he dashed those hopes. In so doing, has he dashed his own? Gone, by and large, is the swash-buckling swerver who could outrun or overpower most anyone. In his place is a forlorn, feckless footballer. In this his fifth year at Arsenal, there are already calls growing in volume if not veracity that he's done and we'd best part ways with him. Hold the phone.

He's 22. Just 22. Five years into his time at Arsenal makes it feel like he's been here for his entire
career—and that's not far off. When so many other players have come and gone, five years is practically an eternity. As such, the frustration against him might feel more understandable, especially when his positive production has all but disappeared (his only goal coming in the Community Shield win over Chelsea on 2 August 2015) while his habit for howlers has hounded him relentlessly.

This was a season, though, in which he might have had more of a chance to shine. With Walcott playing through the middle more often there should have been chances for Ox to play on the wing. However, Coquelin's rise thrust Ramsey wide, denying Ox in one fell swoop access to two of the spots he'd previously played pretty well—defensive midfield and winger. Compounding matters was the unexpected surge of Joel Campbell, who to this point had risen to the level of running joke rather than legitimate first-teamer. Regarding Campbell, it seemed more likely that he would set a record for being loaned out faster than for anything else. And yet, here we are: Campbell is being supped as this season's Coquelin while Ox is being branded as this season's Sanogo, to the point that many might be relieved—thrilled, even—to see Ox loaned out.

Were it not for the mixed history of our players being loaned out, I could see the sense of loaning Ox somewhere. It's timely then to see Gnabry's loan to West Brom ended early and for Isaac Hayden's loan to Hull City similarly cut short, both in the same week no less. While a loan can frequently give a young player more time on the pitch to develop, it's tricky to find the right fit. Given the deep depth and wide variety of skills that Ox possesses, it would be far better for him to stay put and develop right here. There are few players in our squad who possess the skills that he has. He's big but fast. He can blow past one defender with pace, muscle past another, and deftly dribble a third. He can unleash a wicked shot from distance or thread a delicate pass through a thicket. The operative word through all of this, unfortunately, is "can".

On his day, Ox can do all of these things and has done so in the past. He will again someday in the future, but not with his confidence in as many pieces as it apparently is at the moment. Last season, he made more appearances than he had ever made (37 for 2,113 minutes), and it started to show in his development. He was getting into dangerous positions. He was almost scoring breath-taking goals (he did get three to go with five assists). His work-rate seemed to rival that of Ramsey's. In short, he was poised to leap to the next level.

So how did it all come crashing down?

A nagging groin injury kept him out of most of the second half of the 2014-15 season, denying him invaluable time in training or on the pitch. Coming back fresh into the 2015-16 season, it looked as if Ox would pick up from where he left off, scoring the only goal in our 1-0 win over Chelsea in the Community Shield. However, ghosts of mistakes came back to haunt Ox. We were down 0-1 to West Ham to start the Prem campaign but showing signs of life until Ox tried to dribble clear of our area. His first touch was heavy, and Zarate blasted home to make it 0-2; the match was all but over. While a single moment can't stand as the only cause for a player's confidence to collapse, there may have been something in Ox that crumbled.

Whatever the cause, the kid is clearly bereft of confidence. He seems afraid to make yet another, similar mistake, and this fear prevents him from the same exploits that would restore confidence. Nothing ventured, nothing lost—or gained. It's a bit of a catch-22 for #22. Perhaps a chance on Saturday against Sunderland in the FA Cup would revive him? Or might it be better for him to face an injury-depleted Liverpool at Anfield on Wednesday?

Whatever the case, it's far too early to give up on lad. He may be raw and reckless at this stage. Imagine him with a bit more confidence and experience—he could very well be something special. If nothing else, the prolonged absences of Cazorla, Coquelin and Wilshere make Ox all but indispensable in the short term. In the longer term, well, who knows? His potential is vast. Give him a chance. To arrive at conclusions after just a half-season is a bit harsh. He'll come good.

Once he does, he'll discombobulate all sorts of defensive set-ups. If they sit back, his muscularity and touch can unlock them. If they pin us back, his pace and touch can punish them. Again with that word, "can". Give him a bit more time, and he'll turn that "can" into "does". Soon enough, he'll be a problem for other managers to sort out...