It was always going to be a big step for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Arsenal? Plenty of situations that could have worn him down. Liverpool? Hundreds. For the 24-year-old England player, however, it was worth the move to Major League Soccer’s reigning champion.
A 30-year-old with nearly 100 caps for his country, Oxlade-Chamberlain does not yet have the flair to be a playmaker like Steven Gerrard or Ozil, though he did offer his manager, Jurgen Klopp, invaluable intelligence and a clinical eye for goal.
“I needed to be specific with what I could bring to the team,” said Oxlade-Chamberlain in the days after his deal to Liverpool was agreed. “I have spoken to Jurgen and he asked me where I saw myself in three years’ time. I showed him that I can be a focal point in a team and I have that responsibility as a young, hungry English player to do things to change the way Liverpool play.”
It’s a measure of how little impact the injury problem has had on his development that he arrived at Anfield bearing one very compelling injury story, having failed to feature in the league since last April. “Oxlade-Chamberlain is an exceptional talent,” said France head coach Didier Deschamps. “He can be a star in this squad for the next two years.” The Frenchman has seen up close the promise he displays at youth level.
“He never stopped playing,” said Deschamps. “He never stopped working and he knows how to make people listen. When he came to me as a teenager, I said it would take him about four or five years to get on the field at the highest level because of his size. He was a big lad back then. It can also take that many years to become a good player. But he has the character to wait.”
At his Arsenal youth team, on the other hand, Oxlade-Chamberlain showed an earlier talent for technique and sporting ability than he has yet shown at a major club. It was also sharp and direct enough to convince the then Arsenal academy manager, Patrick Vieira, to open a contract extension — and an academy home — at the club. There were many reasons why Oxlade-Chamberlain signed for Arsenal. But playing midfield, even on the rare occasions that he did, was not one of them.
“I’ve moved on,” he has said. “I’m one of those players that after 10 years at one club, you get those doubts about you, and you think ‘is it the best thing for me to stay?’. I’m not saying that’s right or wrong. It’s just my thinking. But it’s not been a real difficult decision because I made my decision a long time ago.”
It will still be, however, another difficult decision for Liverpool. The smaller tackles and stronger running challenges of MLS make them an altogether more palatable proposition. But in addition to his desired specific abilities, it is the vulnerability in his game that made the Anfield move seem like a more sensible option than a quick fix. “He had the qualities we were looking for to improve our team,” said Klopp. “I knew I could use him in an interesting way and also bring him to a team with some experience in world football. His move to England will also help him become a better player. He’s got an ability and an intelligence that we thought could help us.”
It may take him a few years to return to the kind of influence he showed at the club that developed him, but there are few faster ways to grow in the game than through playing in England.