Gareth Southgate’s team tinkering may have some long-term pluses for Arsenal.
International weeks often feel like a desert between two rivers for obsessive English club fans like myself (and most likely anyone reading this). Particularly as, bar a couple of exciting victories against Germany teams already planning their major tournament quarter-final tactics, England haven’t really played decent football since the late 90s and for a couple of games at Euro 2004, when the current England captain’s hair was his own.
This is probably more pronounced for followers of clubs with Premier League passport diversity, and again more so those from a London still mourning the outcome of the EU referendum.
That said, there is slightly more interest for Arsenal fans then in some previous years, as there are a few players in and around the England squad. While none have really nailed down a regular starting berth, the likes of Wilshere, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Gibbs and once or twice Jenkinson and Chambers, at least give a modicum of interest.
After the epic fails of the last three tournaments for the England national side, and the Allardyce embarrassment, the current coaching set up has more scope than ever to shake-up the status quo.
Rumours abound Monday that Gareth Southgate may be planning to give Wayne Rooney the same status for his country that he currently possesses for his club; that of bench-warmer extraordinaire. This is no great surprise after the turgid tempo of England’s midfield of late, and is an illustration of why, if and when he gets fully fit, Jack Wilshere will be back in the squad.
A knock on effect of this central dysfunctionality is the news that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has been utilised in a midfield role in training with England. While it seems unlikely that he will start this week, it represents an interesting shift. While his stand out performances at club level have been in central roles (though some time ago), his selection for the national side has been almost exclusively as a wide man.
As outlined in an interview with the Evening Standard, his role in the Arsenal squad is partly defined by a proliferation of talent in central areas, and a comparative paucity of options out wide. He is trying to develop his game accordingly, and as is often the case, demonstrates a good awareness of his own game.
“Because I’ve been playing on the wing, I’ve focused more on my runs off the ball in behind. That’s because I’m more naturally like a midfielder so I come towards the ball to receive it. That’s something I’ve had to work on to become more of a winger.”
“If I play in midfield, I’m still going to get the ball, look to go past people and drive forward with it.”
Crucially from an Arsenal perspective, he seems happy to adapt to whatever the club wants from him, without any of the self-defeating positional obsession previously shown by Theo Walcott.
“If I get told to play on the wing, there is nothing in me that is annoyed I’m not playing midfield. I know I have got qualities that suit the wing and I’m happy to express myself there… I don’t think it stunts my development because there is no negative feeling on my behalf.”
However, given the slight change in focus in Arsenal’s attacking set up this season to date, a temporary shift in focus to a more responsible, distribution based midfield role is no bad thing. With Walcott finding form as a more advanced wide-man whose primary focus is more about off-the-ball movement and providing either the finish to moves or the final ball, the plan for the other flank has evolved with the emergence of Iwobi. Rather than the need for speed and penetration either side of Giroud, the mobility of Alexis up front has allowed Wengerball to return to its more lop-sided roots, with an overt goal threat on one flank being balanced by a more creative ball-playing wide-man on the other.
Given Iwobi’s tender years, it isn’t realistic to base an entire season’s plans on him retaining his form throughout, and having another option that can contribute in that role is vital. As long as Alexis remains as our striker, Oxlade-Chamberlain is our only wide option with the pace and directness to attempt to replicate Walcott’s role. At present, however, he is simultaneously our cover option for Iwobi. As such, being given greater responsibility for retaining possession and accelerating play from deep when on England duty, can only serve to impact positively on his capacity to fill in on the left at club level. In a way, this is even more the case, due to the death of creative options at England’s disposal at present.
For Arsenal, it can be all too easy for secondary players to overly defer responsibility for incisive build up play to players of the quality of Cazorla, Ozil and Sanchez, thus minimising their own impact. For England, the seniority is more based on experience rather than technical ability, and though Jordan Henderson is a fine multi-functional Premier League midfielder, the temptation to lean on him for momentary genius won’t be as great.
A more central focus is also good for Oxlade-Chamberlain’s international ambitions. After a decade of central midfield talent but precious little out wide, the pendulum has swung the other way, with England now well stocked for wingers or wide forwards, but a dearth of quality in midfield. What talent there is tends to lack the mobility and ingenuity to break through the lines in the manner vital in the footballing landscape of 2016, and this are skills that the Ox certainly does possess. The question is, can he find the necessary consistency in distribution and positional intelligence to make this work for club and country.
As ever the onus is on him. He has the talent, and it seems the intelligence and desire. But can he forge the concentration and mental strength to piece his game together?