Football fandom is a peculiar phenomenon.
To an outsider, the idea of choosing a club and supporting it through thick and thin is a strange one. When Arsenal were regularly suffering acrimonious defeat after disheartening defeat, I would retreat to my room and take a sad nap, my own way of fast-forwarding towards being less of a miserable wreck. My father would tease me (he bravely supports no team), but never questioned my dedication or love for the Arsenal. My mother, on the other hand, would regularly ask me why I didn’t just support a better team. She didn’t get it.
As you all know, supporting a club is about far more than just enjoying the rare moments when trophies are being lifted and the likes of Mesut Özil decide to join your team. No, just as sunshine wouldn’t be special without rain, success feels muted and boring without soul-crushing failure. Above all, you begin to identify with your club.
And while many Arsenal fans disagree with how the club is run or whether there is enough ambition within the boardroom, if you ask any Arsenal fan which facet of the club makes them most proud, chances are they’ll espouse the club’s dedication to youth.
And why wouldn’t they? Arsène Wenger’s reign, in particular, has seen its finest moment built on a foundation of diamonds in the rough that he polished over many years. What moment might that be?
Indeed, the only post-war English team to navigate an entire top-flight season undefeated saw Thierry Henry (21), Patrick Vieira (20), Ashley Cole (16), Lauren (23), Kolo Toure (21), Freddy Ljungberg (21) and Edu (23) all join the club as inexperienced, inexpensive youngsters, but mature in world-beaters and champions.
And while the club has yet to enjoy that sort of success in the proceeding eleven years, Arsenal fans have never lost their overzealous dedication to the many youngsters that have plied their trade at Highbury and the Emirates. Some have succeeded (Cesc Fàbregas, Robin Van Persie, Gael Clichy, Emmanuel Adebayor, Samir Nasri, Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott and Lord Bendtner) many have failed (Fran Merida, Ryo Miyaichi, Rui Fonte, Francis Jeffers, Justin Hoyte, Nacer Barazite, Armand Traore, Henri Lansbury, Mark Randall and Lord Bendtner), but the dedication remains, undeterred.
What have I learned over the years? To be patient, which is difficult for most football fans, but alas. Which brings me to the main point(s) of this article; Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
To some, they are the future of the English national team, two marauding, stylish midfielders that would look more at home in the Spanish squad. To others, they are overrated, inefficient and are miles from the Arsenal XI. The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle.
Oxlade-Chamberlain is the faster and better dribbler of the two (though Wilshere is no slouch), while Wilshere is the better passer, but for having played a combined 18,067 senior minutes (equal to about 200 full matches of football), Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain are nowhere near where Arsenal fans, and indeed anyone who saw them blossom at 18 years old, thought they would be.
Take Wilshere. Here was an 18 year old sent out on loan to Bolton Wanderers (when they were still a respectable Premier League side) and led them to Premier League survival. At 18! His passing was still inconsistent and he was culpable of losing the ball, but he had defensive intelligence (recorded 2.26 interceptions a game) and a heady nature when Arsenal were in possession. He looked like he could pass for fifteen, but Wilshere played with the maturity of a seasoned veteran. There were flaws, but it was clear he was as good a prospect as any in his age group. That performance against Barcelona was the culmination of his powers and convinced Arsenal fans worldwide he was destined for superstardom.
Which is disappointing, because through the injuries, scandals and questionable attitude, Wilshere has still managed to play quite a bit of football, but has yet to show any growth. He’s become a real cavalier, blazing into challenges and dribbling into danger, exposing his poor, naked ankles to ruthless tackles from the likes of Paddy McNair.
He could stand to learn a lesson or two from Santi Cazorla, an equally diminutive playmaker, but a far more intelligent footballer, one who is equally adept at riding challenges as he is at avoiding them, but marrying that with passing or shooting the ball with all the punctuality of a teacher’s pet. Cazorla’s evolution into Arsenal’s version of Xavi Hernandez was an inspired one, but necessitated by Wilshere’s inability to fill that sort of role.
Why can’t Wilshere do that? Perhaps that’s the wrong question. He has shown, at times, (most recently in Arsenal’s 2-2 draw at home to Manchester City last season) that he can be a complete midfielder. Some have suggested that injuries have kept him from being able to work the kinks out of his game, but that’s a very unsatisfactory excuse. Wilshere’s issues aren’t of a physical or technical nature, but of a mental one. He can dribble, shoot, sprint, pass, etc, but he lacks the nuance to do them in such a way that benefits the team.
Oxlade-Chamberlain, similarly, came into the Arsenal squad at a young age (bought from Southampton a week prior to his 18th birthday for £10 million) and almost immediately impressed with his pace, incisive dribbling and propensity to let the ball fly from a distance. He truly announced himself to the world in a 2-1 loss to Manchester United, coming off the bench to assist Robin Van Persie (then still a Gunner) and generally impose himself upon the much more experienced United midfield. Two weeks later, the Ox would score two goals, as he powered Arsenal to a 7-1 victory over Blackburn Rovers.
Almost four years on from that blistering introduction to life in North London, the Ox has found himself in the same boat as Wilshere. Similarly oft-injured and bereft of a consistent end-product or defensive presence, Oxlade-Chamberlian has been unable to take advantage of Theo Walcott’s perpetual absence through injury, and he’s stagnated to the point that Wenger has preferred Aaron Ramsey on the right for the sake of balance.
Scoring the winner against Chelsea in the Community Shield, coupled with Alexis Sanchez’s absence on holiday, Wilshere’s injury and Walcott’s inclusion farther up the pitch has birthed renewed optimism around Oxlade-Chamberlain’s development. He looked fit, showed no fear in attacking the vaunted Chelsea defense and showed unerring poise to collect Walcott’s pass on the right, isolate the normally imperious Cesar Azpiliucueta and rifle the ball past Thibaut Courtois with his less-favored left peg.
It was a savoury moment, not just because it ended an ignonimous winless streak for Arsene Wenger versus Jose Mourinho, but hinted at the mouth-watering possibility that Oxlade-Chamberlain was ready to take his game to the next level. Not a day goes by without a pundit (real-life or Twitter-based) saying *insert vaguely creative player’s name* would be “world-class” if they JUST added consistent finishing or delivery. “He needs more goals or assists,” they say, but they rarely expand on that vaguery. Why? Because it’s not that simple.
– You can see that Wilshere (13/14) and Oxlade-Chamberlain (12/13) have both show the capacity to produce with the best and brightest talents, but they haven’t shown as much growth as many had hoped.
Oxlade-Chamberlain is just another cog in a well-oiled Arsenal side. You cannot demand that he stand out by doing something ulterior to the squad’s motives. He is a facilitator, but that doesn’t always necessarily yield something quantifiable, like assists (a flawed statistic that’s overused to measure one’s creativity). What you can demand of the Ox is to improve within the role he’s assigned — to bring the ball forward with pace, use his movement to free himself and to enter the ball into the box when the opportunity presents itself.
In my opinion, he’s yet to develop the technical mastery and vision necessary to fulfill that role. This may be an unpopular opinion, but Oxlade-Chamberlain should really study Danny Welbeck’s game. Not noted for his finishing, Welbeck’s time as a striker has been met with almost unanimous grief from Arsenal fans. The truth is, Welbeck was an excellent foil for Alexis Sánchez during their time playing together (predominantly between September and December). His critics will point to his lack of goals, but his finishing was unsustainably low last season (he underperformed his “expected goals” by 50%, which is insanely bad/unlucky), he will bounce back given enough time. What’s important was he possesses the movement to get into good positions, whether that’s to take shots or make them.
He may have started at ST, but you would often find Welbeck occupying space out on the left-wing. Comparisons between him and Thierry Henry were abundant following Welbeck’s splendid hat-trick versus Galatasaray in the Champions League, but the similarities run much deeper than the occasional classy finish.
Welbeck, like Henry, drifts out to the left-wing, allowing the player in that position to get into the box and make use of any space freed up as a result of defense being dragged out of position. For Henry, this allowed Robert Pires to flourish. In Welbeck’s case, he gave Alexis Sánchez the freedom of the box with his intelligent runs and incisive passing. In fact, Alexis Sánchez and Welbeck ranked 1st and 5th, respectively, in terms of “danger passer rating,” a metric that measures a player’s propensity to play passes into the box, a particularly useful skill. This would culminate in possessions where Welbeck, Cazorla and Alexis would form a triangle just to the left of the box and circulate the ball until a defender rotated slowly or one of them could get free in the box. It was mesmerizing, and beautiful to behold.
— Leutrim Rexhaj (@LeutrimRexhaj) May 24, 2015
– Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil are usual suspects, but Danny Welbeck’s appearance will strike many as a surprise. A lack of Wilshere or Oxlade-Chamberlain is disappointing.
Is Oxlade-Chamberlain capable of that? Possibly, but he’s not there yet. He’s in the Walcott class of wingers — not really a huge part of build-up, but definitely capable of getting on the end of long periods of possession. And while Ox is a bit better than Walcott when it comes to getting involved, it’s still a large gap in his game. It’s a big reason why I struggle to see him transitioning to midfield. Which is fine, he has a very specific, useful skillset, but you also have to be realistic about what he should be working towards, instead of romanticizing an ideal. Wenger would love for Oxlade-Chamberlain to be more Joe Cole, less Shaun Wright-Phillips, but there’s only so much you can do about that.
So where does that leave Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain? How should fans reflect upon their role in the squad? Well, both players can expect to play significant roles for Arsenal this season, what with Wenger only signing Petr Cech so far, but at this point it’s difficult to see either solidifying a key role in the starting XI. Wilshere is comfortably behind Ramsey, Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla when it comes to a central midfield berth, while Oxlade-Chamberlain still needs to make the most of Alexis’ absence before Wenger has a genuine selection headache. The possibility of a striker or midfielder arriving would only further marginalize the young Gunners.
And that’s OK. For as long as I can remember, Wenger’s ruthlessness (or lack thereof) was a frequently brought into question. Managers like Jose Mourinho were held up as the ideal, dropping players with reckless abandon. Wenger, on the other hand, would stick with struggling players, for better or worse. There were success (Aaron Ramsey, most notably) and failures (Gervinho, Marouane Chamakh, several goalkeepers), but it was a constant source of grief for the endearing Frenchman.
But things have changed. Buoyed by Arsenal’s newfound financial might, and with the squad on the precipice of challenging for a title, Wenger has more reason than ever to be ruthless. Wojciech Szczesny is just one high-profile casualty. Three years ago Oxlade-Chamberlain and Wilshere were getting games no matter what, but they no longer have to compete with Yossi Benayoun and Emmanuel Frimpong. Now they have to fight with Alexis Sánchez and Mesut Özil.
Which leaves us, the fans, in a strange position. For so long, we had to invest ourselves into the likes of Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain because we had little else to hope for. Seeing Özil and Alexis on the team-sheet still feels like a dream!
And it’s that abrupt shift in Arsenal’s status that’s affected how I feel about these kids. Because for better or worse, I was married to the idea that these kids would all become world-beaters. Now? I’m open to the idea that the kid who bossed it against Xavi and Iniesta in the Champions League just isn’t as good as I thought he was.