When the teamsheet came out on Saturday, some worried Arsenal may have to continue their wait before getting a first win at St Mary’s since Southampton’s return to the top flight in 2012.
This worry was largely due to skepticism over an inexperienced, untested, and somewhat makeshift midfield trio of Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Jeff Reine-Adelaide. However, 15 minutes into proceedings, these fears were calmed and an assured Arsenal were on their way to a 0-5 victory.
The success of the midfield unit was facilitated by having a cohesive back four behind it and a fluid front 3, with a potent combination of pace, movement, and guile ahead of them. This is crucial when bedding in a new unit and is a luxury that some past combinations were not afforded. Saturday’s midfield trio were given the best possible opportunity to succeed, but still had to go out there and get it done.
‘Go out there and get it done’ is something Arsenal still very much had to do, and they did so commendably. Detractors may say it was ‘Only Southampton’, who had rotated after their midweek exertions at Anfield. However, at the heart of the Southampton team were two experienced international midfielders, in Jordy Clasie and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, who have excelled in past displays against other more established Arsenal midfields this season and last. Arsenal’s performance on Saturday’s performance is not to be sniffed at.
Similarly, the ‘Only Southampton’ line simply doesn’t stand up when discussing Oxlade-Chamberlain’s passing. The range of passes that the elder statesman of Saturday’s midfield attempted and almost seamlessly executed doesn’t come easy, regardless of opposition. His lofted ball for Danny Welbeck’s second goal was exquisite, while his perfectly weighted pre-assist for Theo Walcott’s second was more measured. His usage of the ball was largely excellent and it was one of his most accomplished and complete performances for the club.
Throughout his six seasons at Arsenal, we’ve seen The Ox show flashes of brilliance and put together an impressive highlight reel. However, these highlights have come in the context of some lowlights, categorised by bad decisions on the ball and a lack of awareness and defensive diligence off it. But that’s to be expected of a talent between the ages of 17 and 21.
Going into a season where he turned 23, he was at a point in his career where he had to start putting together full games, rather than merely vines or youtube compilations. This was especially pertinent with him entering the final two years of his contract, with Arsenal likely to have to make a big decision at the 18-month mark as to whether to extend his stay in North London or look to move him on to avoid losing him on a free.
Saturday’s performance is a reminder that Oxlade-Chamberlain has it all in his locker. That withstanding, it wasn’t flawless. He still made five or six fairly basic mistakes that you wouldn’t want to see from a central midfielder at the highest level, but he’s not that yet.
It remains to be seen where his best position is, but given Arsenal’s strength in depth out wide, perhaps it would be wise for him to work areas of his game that will lend themselves more to making himself a viable option in Arsenal’s currently depleted midfield, even if only in the short term. However, a team with instinctive players like Ox and Alexis Sanchez both taking risks on the ball in central areas will require adjustments to be made elsewhere to accommodate them.
In the long term, I’m of the belief that Arsene Wenger will extend The Ox’s contract. He’s clearly an admirer of his talents, appreciates the rich skillset he has to work with, and has already invested six years of time and money into making a player out of him. Saturday’s performance is a timely reminder of the player Ox could quite quickly become if he matures and consistently engages his brain. Wenger may feel he has stood feeding 2p coins into the arcade machine for so long that if he walks away now, someone else is soon going to walk up and reap the rewards of what he himself has sown, while having put in little time or effort of their own.