We are ten days on from the confirmation that our best player was leaving, paying millions out of his own pocket just to force a move away from Anfield, but it feels like 10 years. The continued speculation as to how the dreaded sum of £142 million will be spent has been tiresome and draining. However, the intoxicating performance against Man City on Sunday provided evidence that perhaps to fill the creative hole in midfield that the sparkling Brazilian left behind, we should look no further than last summer’s recruit from North London.
Throughout his Arsenal career, I didn’t think much of Oxlade-Chamberlain; he never seemed to nail down a place in their lineup for any sort of extended period of time, and flattered to deceive whenever I saw him. His lack of consistency attracted the ire of the Arsenal faithful, seemingly an easy target to blame on Arsenal Fan TV for Robbie and his minions. So, when Liverpool decided to spend £40 million on the former Southampton teenage sensation, me, like many Liverpool fans, were disgruntled that the money wasn’t used to strengthen other areas of the pitch.
Doing nothing to allay initial doubts, Chamberlain had a markedly underwhelming start to life at Anfield. He wasn’t helped by a lack of faith, from the fans, pundits and even his manager. Didi Hamann called the transfer “baffling” after watching Liverpool falter defensively against Sevilla in the game at Anfield, while the £40 million man sat on the bench until the 89th minute. Coutinho hadn’t even started the game, but, despite his own constant declarations that he was at his best centrally, Ox still wasn’t considered ready enough to play that role. Indeed, Klopp’s refusal to play Chamberlain as a central midfielder must have frustrated the man in question, especially with Coutinho and Lallana missing a lot of early season games.
When he did play, it was out wide, and he was average at best, with a particularly confidence-devout performance occurring in the Cup against Leicester, drawing “I told you so” from every Arsenal fan more focused on their former player than the mediocrity of their own team. Chamberlain’s slow start was epitomised by a recent visit to a local school in which he was either ignored entirely or told to ‘get himself off the bench’ in cringe-worthy fashion by school kids who were full of admiration for his two Brazilian teammates.
Fast forward to now, and Chamberlain has become one of my favourite players, and has managed to grab a pretty regular role in the starting eleven, with his most impressive performances coming when playing in central midfield. This began with his outing against Bournemouth, in which he was awarded MOTM for his efforts after a fine display. His post match interview, in which he defended Coutinho from being questioned about Barcelona, only endeared himself to the fans even further. He was starting to win us round.
More astute performances followed, his was the free-kick that was knocked down for King Klavan’s late Burnley glory, his corner set up Virgil for his magnificent debut header, and his all round game showed a renewed confidence. And then, against the best team in the country, he scored a beauty and set up another goal, both very Coutinho-like, but also provided sides of his game Coutinho could never bring to the team. After the FA Cup Final last season, Chamberlain suggested somewhat provocatively that he had always wanted to be like Steven Gerrard, and his performance on Sunday had aspects to it that were reminiscent of the Scouse legend. An intensity to the tackle, intelligent passing and a willingness to shoot from range; it was clear where Chamberlain had drawn his inspiration from. His turnaround was complete.
Like Coutinho, Ox is versatile and can play wide, although I feel he is wasted out there. His direct play would seemingly be suited to playing wide but he has a tenacity to his game that needs to be utilised in central areas. His driving runs forward actually work perfectly coming from deeper, and he lacks the cutting edge finishing that Mane and Salah seem to have in abundance. Klopp seems to trust Ox more and more these days, which is typified by the fact he hasn’t panicked and brought in an immediate replacement for Coutinho. He might not be the creative genius that the Brazilian was, but is arguably a far more well rounded midfield player.
Improving all the time, he has been earmarked by some as potential captain material for Liverpool. I think we should wait until the end of the season, and hopefully reassess then. Jordan Henderson has been solid for Liverpool for a few years but in my opinion is very limited, and doesn’t seem to be a natural leader at all really, and moving him on in the summer might be a wise move. The way Ox conducts himself, both off and on the pitch, he sets the example. I can’t think of many leaders in the Liverpool dressing room, and captains this season have included much maligned Mignolet and Lovren, so this notion is not exactly far fetched. Giving the captaincy to him would do wonders for his confidence, something which he clearly thrives on; not being played at wing back or sitting on the bench half the time has been crucial in his development.
He should start around 15 of the next 20 games in midfield in my opinion, and we will see if he adds the consistency he needs. I am not suggesting we should forget about Lallana, a player who I love, and against the weaker teams I believe they can play together in a 3 man midfield. If Chamberlain continues to perform as he has been doing recently, there is no need for a player to directly replace Coutinho; we have the perfect man already at the club. Spend the money on a new keeper Jurgen, spend it all on a new keeper. Ox is good enough to step up and be counted.