He may be Liverpool’s £35m new signing, but will Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain be able to claim a regular starting spot? Peter Smith takes a look at the challenge facing the England international…
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is fit and ready to make his Liverpool debut on Saturday. But will there be any room for the £35m signing in the starting XI against Manchester City?
The former Arsenal player has made no secret of his desire to establish himself as a central midfielder at Anfield, having played in a variety of roles under Arsene Wenger. But despite his hefty price tag, Oxlade-Chamberlain appears to have a battle on his hands to force his way into Liverpool’s first team anywhere at all.
In his search for a settled role and consistent game time, Oxlade-Chamberlain has signed for a club which already possesses an abundance of midfield options. The wide berths are competitive, too.
Reds boss Jurgen Klopp – who has led his side to four straight wins in their past four Premier League and Champions League games – has used a 4-3-3 formation so far this season, with midfield trio Georginio Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson and Emre Can earning praise for their role in the 4-0 demolition of Arsenal last time out.
Oxlade-Chamberlain will be hard pressed to dislodge any of those players this weekend. Factor in the currently injured Adam Lallana and returning Philippe Coutinho and the scale of the challenge of breaking into this team becomes apparent.
Further up the field, Liverpool’s joint-top scorer from last season Sadio Mane and summer signing Mo Salah are two of the club’s most in-form players, having either scored or set up six of the team’s eight Premier League goals between them so far this season.
In comparison, Oxlade-Chamberlain has never scored more than twice in a Premier League season and, prior to his seven assists in 2016/17, had laid on just seven goals in five campaigns at Arsenal.
So where does that leave the new arrival? An expensive squad player available to step in to cover injuries and suspensions across the pitch? That’s the role Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville expects the 24-year-old will have to fulfil.
“He doesn’t get in the best XI,” Neville told Sky Sports News. “Coutinho, Can, Henderson, Lallana, Salah, (Roberto) Firmino all play in front of him. Everyone seems to be eulogising over him, but he doesn’t get in the best XI and strengthen their team.
“He does, however, strengthen their squad – he’s a player who could play in Klopp’s style. He’s got a huge amount of talent and is a decent lad but he has three or four areas of his game which he has to significantly improve.
“The biggest being his focus and concentration and being a really top professional. I think his injury record is poor, too, he’ll need to work hard to stay fit. Also, his impact in terms of his assists and goals.
“With the Champions League and Premier League, he’ll be an asset for the squad.”
Clearly, then, it is going to be difficult for the new signing to walk into this Liverpool team. While it is perhaps not the central role – both literally and figuratively – Oxlade-Chamberlain will be hoping for, instead he may have to settle for taking his chances where he can and eventually forging a place of his own in the line-up.
But that doesn’t mean he won’t have an important part to play in this campaign.
Last season, the midfield trio which started against Arsenal missed a combined 21 Premier League games through injury. Mane (nine), Coutinho (seven) and Lallana (seven) – who is yet to play in 2017/18 – were also absent for significant game time with injuries.
With the added workload of Champions League football on the agenda for Liverpool this season, Klopp is going to need options and will have to rotate.
So, Oxlade-Chamberlain can expect opportunities. But the central midfield berth he craves? “There must be a plan in place for where he is going to play and fit in,” said Sky Sports’ Jamie Carragher. “But, for me, I am interested to see how that one works out.
“He is a good player for the squad at this moment, but central midfield? I am still scratching my head on that one.”
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September 9, 2017, 11:30am
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Perhaps Oxlade-Chamberlain’s signing is more about long-term planning. With uncertainty over the future of Can, who is out of contract next summer, James Milner in his early 30s, and with Coutinho coveted by Barcelona, the complexion of the Liverpool squad could change over the course of the next couple of transfer windows.
Certainly, Klopp’s reaction when the signing was announced was interesting. Less worried about specific positions or roles, he was eager to work with a player of Oxlade-Chamberlain’s attributes and potential.
“I am really, really happy we have got Alex signed,” he said. “Since the last game I have been waiting and hoping we could make this transfer – and when I got the news he was ours it was fantastic. I hear a lot of talk about positions but let’s talk about the player; he is someone with really good abilities who always gives everything for his team. A player that is positive and willing to take risks to try and make positive things happen.”
Another aspect to Oxlade-Chamberlain’s move was the desire to develop. And in Klopp he has a manager eager to take him to the next level. But RB Leipzig’s talented midfielder Naby Keita is due to arrive next summer and the fierce fight for game time is not going to ease anytime soon.
In leaving his comfort zone at Arsenal, that is what Oxlade-Chamberlain has sought out. It was a brave move. But now the reality is he has plenty of hard work ahead of him to earn his place in this ambitious – and well stocked – Liverpool line-up.
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