Mesut Özil rightly took the plaudits as Arsenal’s standout performer in last night’s 6-0 win over Ludogorets, as The Perfect 10 crowned his sublime overall performance with his first ever senior hat-trick in the second half.
Özil remains the central figure in this Arsenal team, but there has been all change around him over the summer.
Much has already been written about Arsenal’s midfield, but less so about the changes in the profile of the front three. Alexis Sanchez has been playing as something of a false nine, with wide forward Theo Walcott darting in beyond him, and wide secondary playmaker Alex Iwobi drifting and creating.
The blend of their skillsets has aided Arsenal’s fluidity and created a potent attacking force.
Given the bespoke nature of the skillsets of the protagonists, removing any of them from the starting XI would alter the balance of the side. Arsenal don’t have a fast wide player who is as good at picking and timing his runs without the ball behind the opposition defence as Walcott.
Nor do they have another senior player with Iwobi’s skillset, hence the summer’s calls to sign Götze, Draxler, or even Isco. Arsenal’s two starting wide men are valuable commodities and every effort must be made to keep them fit, fresh, and firing.
As such, Iwobi was given a rest last night against Ludogorets.
His replacement, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, was duly rewarded with a start for his increasingly encouraging cameos this season. That the 20-year-old in his first full season has already become the valued starter, while the 23-year-old is still very much on the outside looking in, even in his 6th season at the club, in a stuttering career punctuated by injury, has as much to do with skillsets and player profile as it does ability.
The pre-Summer 2016 version of Oxlade-Chamberlain was a high risk, high reward, wide dribbler, who likes to travel with the ball and make things happen by himself.
He wasn’t as adept as Iwobi at engaging in combination play and lacked both the inclination and timing to be as effective as Walcott in getting behind defences. It was difficult to see where a player of his profile would fit in this new look front three at Arsenal.
2016/17 was always going to be a crossroads season for Oxlade-Chamberlain, with his contract entering its final two years. That a decision to offer him an extension wasn’t made in the summer suggests there is still some doubt over whether he’ll fulfil his potential and that the club would like longer before making committing.
Equally, lesser players held in lower esteem would have been moved on last summer. Arsenal still want him to make it here and he still wants to make it at Arsenal.
Sometimes, that desire to ‘make it’ has seen him try too hard on the pitch.
This was particularly evident last season, where his high risk high reward style would see him turn the ball over a lot, dribble down blind alleys, and look to force things when they simply weren’t on. A desire to impress going forward also saw him neglect his defensive duties somewhat.
Last night’s performance against Ludogorets demonstrated that there is still a player in Oxlade-Chamberlain and that Wenger was right to keep him at the club last summer in the hope that he kicks on and realises his potential.
In addition to the usual comments about wanting more game time, Oxlade-Chamberlain has talked the talk in recent interviews about making more runs in behind.
Last night it was good to see him walk the walk.
He’s acknowledged an area of his game he needs to work on, and last night’s display was indicative of progress on that front. He was also more measured and considered with his usage of the ball, not looking to force something when it wasn’t on. He used his dribbling to good effect, seldom going down the blind alleys he’s lost himself in throughout his career, knowing when to release the ball. He’s been working on aspects of his game that could eventually see him become a serviceable nominal backup of sorts for both Iwobi and Walcott, providing the corresponding tweaks are made elsewhere in the XI.
However, it’s not bad to have variety in the squad. Oxlade-Chamberlain doesn’t need to be shoehorned into the Walcott role or the Iwobi role.
In match scenarios where Arsenal are looking to sit back, absorb pressure, and then hit on the counter, Oxlade-Chamberlain’s dribbling skills would be ideal. It’s perfectly fine to pick horses for courses.
It’s too early to declare that The Ox has ‘arrived’ as a result of last night’s performance, but recent comments and last night’s display are reasons to hope that 2016/17 could well be the season he does.
History has warned that the road ahead is still a long and potentially bumpy one, but performances like last night will go a long way to boosting his confidence moving forward.
I expect to see him start against Reading, but wouldn’t be surprised if one of Walcott or Alexis are afforded a rest at the weekend against Middlesbrough and he stays in the XI opposite the returning Iwobi.