Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has a huge future ahead of him. The 19-year-old Arsenal star is possibly the most mature youngster England has produced since the great Bobby Charlton made his debut, as a 19-year-old, for Manchester United in 1956.
Like Charlton before him, Oxlade-Chamberlain began his football career out on the wings. And also like Charlton, the Arsenal youngster will eventually move inside to where he will become the very heartbeat of whatever team he plays in.
Having made his debut as a 16-year-old with Southampton, Oxlade-Chamberlain has played over 100 professional games. Importantly, 59 of those games have come at Arsenal. He joined the Gunners in August 2011.
The Ox, as Arsenal's fans like to call him, made an inauspicious start to his career under Arsene Wenger. The first time Arsenal fans got to see him in action was as a 62nd-minute substitute during the Gunners' 8-2 loss to Manchester United, just 20 days after joining the club.
By the time the youngster was brought on for the ineffective Francis Coquelin, the game was well and truly over. The logic behind such a substitution by Wenger was not to throw the highly rated youngster to the lions. It was to introduce the youth to the ruthlessness and efficiency in football at the highest level.
From there, Oxlade-Chamberlain went on to play 16 English Premier League matches which had Arsenal and England fans salivating at his great potential. He was even nominated for the Young Player of the Year award in his debut season.
For many, the 19-year-old endured a poor campaign this season. However, while second-season syndrome may be quoted as one of the reasons, it must be recognized that the youngster went on to actually play 25 from 38 EPL matches alongside another four Champions League games.
Add in his debut goal for England and a further five caps, bringing his Three Lions game total to 10 full caps before he turns 20, and all of a sudden, 2012-13 begins to look like significant progress.
The main reason Oxlade-Chamberlain disappointed for many last term was his perceived lack of goals and assists.
In his 562 minutes on the pitch in 2011-12, he managed to score twice and contribute one assist. As a youngster making his bow in the big time, his every touch was cheered and he was encouraged at every opportunity. Excitement crackled at every opportunity.
This season, Oxlade-Chamberlain was old news. Arsenal's fans had newer stars to cheer and pay further attention to. As a result, conventional wisdom amongst many Gunners' fans is that he failed to replicate his successful debut season.
In actual fact, the youngster played 1,063 minutes, almost doubling his game time, and scored one goal whilst wading in with an impressive five assists.
Speaking to Arsenal.com, Arsene Wenger spoke at length on how Oxlade-Chamberlain has improved this season:
Alex is a huge talent. I believe that he has moved forward a lot this season, and you see it now when he comes on, he has a different stature.
He takes responsibility when he comes on now, which was not always the case. He has made huge improvements. I think since January he has grown up a lot. You see that now, there is more purpose in his game, the final ball is much better and his concentration is at a higher level.
That's what you learn when you come from [being] a young talented boy to a real performer. I think this season has been very useful for him.
Oxlade-Chamberlain is a player who is more than capable of flair moments. He has the skill to dazzle his opponents with mesmerizing runs or telepathic-like passes. However, what makes him stand out as such an amazing talent is his maturity. In short, his decision-making resembles that of a seasoned pro.
The player he is most closely likened to at Arsenal is Theo Walcott. Both Walcott and the Ox were signed in big-money moves from Southampton. The duo, alongside Gareth Bale and Luke Shaw, are four outstanding talents to emerge from the South Coast club's academy in recent years.
Both Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain started life in the first team at Arsenal as wide players. Walcott at 24 is with Arsenal since 2006 and is the veteran of over 180 games.
If anything, Oxlade-Chamberlain's growth and maturity in just two years and 59 games under Wenger highlights Walcott's stagnancy in his seven.
Walcott, to this day, frustrates with his poor decision making. He chooses to dribble past opponents into blind alleyways when he should pass and often passes when the best option is to dribble.
His tunnel-visioned style of play means he is a liability at the very highest level and his growth as a footballer is slower than hoped or expected. The one area of his game which made progress in 2012-13 was his finishing, but he needs to vastly improve in other areas of the pitch.
Oxlade-Chamberlain has progressed in just two years to the stage where he is an England squad regular.
In March 2012, Wenger told Arsenal.com that Oxlade-Chamberlain's future was in center midfield. At the time he admitted that the youth was not ready to take on the role. He went further by stating that the then 18-year-old would have to serve his time playing for the team before eventually moving inside.
The high praise came after the youngster impressed the world's media with a stunning performance in center midfield against AC Milan in the Champions League.
He will play [in center midfield] again, but I think he has to play where he is needed basically. The most important thing at the moment is that he develops well.
But he will certainly develop into it [a center midfielder] in the future.
The reason for Oxlade-Chamberlain's greater maturity as a player is his father. Mark Chamberlain was a professional footballer and played across the three decades of the '70s, '80s and '90s. He played over 500 matches as a pro and won eight caps for England.
Chamberlain has given his son a solid grounding in the game. He has not allowed Alex to get carried away with all the trappings that come with modern life as a professional footballer. As an ex-pro, he can offer his son insight into the game that few others can and he always makes sure to offer praise and advice in equal measure.
This approach means that the 19-year-old Alex is always concentrating upon improving his game.
Next season he will be with Arsenal three years and may very well play his 100th game for the club.
He has grown physically as well as mentally, and as the 2013-14 season approaches, he knows he needs to impress his manager. Last season, he intimated to The Sun that he was ready to fill the void left by Alex Song's departure to Barcelona.
Wenger was right not to parachute the youth into the team as Song's replacement. As the season wore on, Oxlade-Chamberlain tasted play in a variety of positions for club and country, but was utilized mainly on the right side of midfield.
Next season will be all about further progression for the soon-to-be 20-year-old.
The last English youth star with huge potential to break through was Wayne Rooney over 10 years ago. There are many physical similarities between the two players.
Rooney is a conventional No. 10 whereas Oxlade-Chamberlain is a midfielder through and through. At this stage of his career, the Arsenal youth has the edge on the explosive Manchester United star through his mature approach.
His vision, positioning and passing are all top class but he needs to add goals to his game. Despite playing in 25 EPL games, he only managed to have 33 shots on goal at an average of just 1.3 shots per game.
This will be the area he needs to work on most this summer.
Wenger fully acknowledges that Oxlade-Chamberlain's future at Arsenal is in center midfield. Pairing him with Jack Wilshere and Santi Cazorla or possibly Mikel Arteta will give Arsenal the kind of mobile midfield that Barcelona employed over the last couple of years.
Arteta is the obvious choice to miss out as Oxlade-Chamberlain is promoted to regular first-team action. In time, the 31-year-old Spaniard will make way for the future star. However, Arteta will play a key role over the next two years of the Ox's development as a player.
The beauty of Oxlade-Chamberlain as a player is that he is comfortable anywhere across the three advanced midfield roles in a 4-2-3-1 formation. He is also more than comfortable in the engine room of a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. He is, however, not quite ready to play center midfield in a 4-4-2.
Arsene Wenger relies heavily upon the former two formations and likes to overload center midfield with a highly mobile triumvirate. Next season, the Ox will be perfect to fill one of these roles. He is the embodiment of everything a modern center midfielder should be.
He is cool under pressure, does not give the ball away cheaply, has the pace to make the opposition commit, the physicality to win the battles that may come, the speed and stamina to cover every blade of grass and the vision to dictate the tempo of the game.
To become a regular in his coveted position of center midfield, all Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has to do is earn Arsene Wenger's trust.
To earn that trust, he has to train like never before this summer.
Over the course of his short career, he has climbed high mountains and fought great battles, but now he is fighting for his career. All he has to do is show Wenger that he wants it bad enough.
If Oxlade-Chamberlain can win his manager's trust, Arsenal and England could have a stunning 2014.
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Statistics from premierleague.com, whoscored.com, arsenal.com
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