Arsenal: How Good Can Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain Be for the Gunners Next Season?
Imagine: you're 18 years old, enjoying your first season of Premier League football. All of a sudden, a surge of excellent form makes you the toast of English football.
There are few hype machines more prodigious than that of the English media's. But in Oxlade-Chamberlain's case, the hoopla was deserved.
A terrific full league debut against Manchester United in January—it was his brilliant wing play (bolstered by an immaculate first touch) that led to Arsenal's lone goal on the day in a 2-1 loss—came after Oxlade-Chamberlain enraptured fans with his scintillating displays in all three cup competitions Arsenal were disputing (Carling, FA and Champions League) during the first portions of the season.
He scored against Shrewsbury Town (Carling Cup) and Olympiakos (Champions League), made his FA Cup debut against Leeds in January, impressing pundits and viewers alike with his purposeful pace and superb technical ability on the wing.
Even against a team as talented and experienced as United, Oxlade-Chamberlain showed no sense of being overwhelmed by the magnitude of the occasion. He was superb on that bitterly cold winter evening, getting into dangerous positions on the left wing and sending in smart, well-driven passes.
Those are calling cards of most of the Ox's games.
Asked by the press whether he felt any nerves for that first Champions League appearance against Olympiakos, Oxlade-Chamberlain responded, "There's always nerves, you want to do as well as you can and help the boys out. But I wasn't too nervous, football's football and if you're confident in your own ability and you work as hard as you can, then I believe that the talent should take over."
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It is that poise and a presence that seems to belie his years that has made Oxlade-Chamberlain such a sensation.
His performances, especially during the first three months of 2012, earned him a spot on the 23-man England roster announced Wednesday that will head to Poland and Ukraine for the European Championships next month.
Can Oxlade-Chamberlain play a "key role" for England at the Euros?
Heaven knows that, given new manager Roy Hodgson's selection, which was perhaps optimistically labeled "conservative" given the players who populated it, there is plenty of room for dynamism to be injected on the pitch.
Oxlade-Chamberlain can certainly bring that to the fold. And with Wayne Rooney set to miss the first two group-stage matches (suspension), the planets are aligning for the Ox to make some history by ways of a scintillating individual performance.
Kind of like Rooney during the 2004 Euros, when the then-Everton striker tallied four goals for England and vaulted into the realm of burgeoning European superstars.
Oxlade-Chamberlain's manager, Arsene Wenger, would appear dead-set on shielding his young starlet from the kind of hype that inevitably arrives with that breed of notoriety. But a strong performance at the Euros could do wonders for Oxlade-Chamberlain's confidence levels heading into next season.
It certainly didn't hamper Rooney ahead of his debut '04-05 season with Manchester United.
Wenger has urged caution all season in regard to Oxlade-Chamberlain, perhaps with one eye turned toward the Euros. Wenger must have known there was a real chance that the former Southampton man would play a role for England this summer.
It was with that in mind, perhaps, that the French manager pulled back on the reins after playing the winger in nearly every fixture from mid-January to March.
After sitting out the Everton match at Goodison Park in late March, Oxlade-Chamberlain appeared in Arsenal's next five matches as a substitute.
Whether it was fatigue, or merely a natural coming back to earth after his atmospheric displays to start the calendar year, Oxlade-Chamberlain was not as influential in those matches in April as he had been previously. Against Chelsea, the last match he started on the season, he was barely in the game.
Wenger must have realized that the Euros would likely be a taxing campaign for his No. 15, and with an increased role likely on the cards for Oxlade-Chamberlain next season, Wenger would have wanted to give him the best possible chance to avoid preseason burn-out.
While major tournaments are taxing by nature, Oxlade-Chamberlain should be ready to go come August. He's young, and he has not been overworked, as we saw from many of the England players at World Cup 2010.
It stands to reason that he should double—at the very least—his 16 league appearances for Arsenal this season.
Lukas Podolski looks set to play as a winger should Robin van Persie stay on, but Oxlade-Chamberlain has every right to feel confident that he can fight for a first-team place with the other wingers on board—Theo Walcott, Gervinho and (maybe) Andrei Arshavin.
With a year's worth of experience under his belt, and having already dealt with a bit of a dip in form, he has dealt with the natural ebbs and flows of a grueling Premier League season.
Given his ability, burgeoning all the time, one would think we'd see more flows from Oxlade-Chamberlain in 2012-13. Is the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA) Young Player of the Year Award a realistic goal?
Doesn't seem too unrealistic a proposition, given the kinds of displays we saw from the Ox last season.
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