Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's form and talent can prove decisive in Arsenal's push for trophies this season. The young England international provides the something extra a resilient squad will need to win the biggest games.
Chamberlain perfectly illustrated that point in the FA Cup fifth-round win over Liverpool. He scored Arsenal's first goal and provided the pass for the second in a thrilling 2-1 win.
Manager Arsene Wenger's adjustments to his team's approach to defending have been brilliant since losing 5-1 at Anfield to the same opposition on February 8th.
But as much as restoring solidity is key, Chamberlain's impact could be more significant. He has provided the pace and scoring touch the Gunners have missed since both Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey succumbed to injury.
Arsenal's attack has suffered without enough genuine pace in the forward areas. But when that crucial element is introduced, the whole team improves.
The second goal against Liverpool Sunday serves as a brilliant example. A dogged bit of pressing from full-back Carl Jenkinson won the ball and released Chamberlain down the right flank.
His direct pace easily took him clear of his marker. That gave Chamberlain the chance to lay a quick pass back inside to Mesut Ozil, whose effort in recent matches, amid fierce but not entirely unjustified criticism, deserves to be commended.
Upon receiving the ball, the cerebral playmaker did what he does best. Ozil instantly connected with a quick-breaking, forward runner.
He set Chamberlain free with a slick return pass that put the Arsenal flier in the Liverpool danger area.
At that point, Lukas Podolski gave the man in possession what he needed: another forward-breaking runner to aim for.
Chamberlain played the ball into the path of Podolski with a very accurate cutback. The Germany international then did what he does best—namely calmly dispatching a chance from inside the box.
The goal was the perfect encapsulation of everything Arsenal will need to win the big games they have left. They will need to stay stubborn and opportunistic in defence—the way Jenkinson was to steal possession and start a break.
Those counters must then be executed with awesome pace and ruthless efficiency. Throw in a dash of flair, like the one Ozil provided, and Arsenal have a method of attack with which few teams at any level can cope.
Chamberlain can be the key to that method. Whether operating from the middle or out wide, he has the qualities to help Arsenal turn a game in an instant.
He won't do it by himself. The 20-year-old is not yet accomplished enough to be the tip of the sword.
But much like Ramsey, Chamberlain can be that catalyst that sparks everything Arsenal do going forward.
As the Gunners' chief counter-puncher, Chamberlain is becoming invaluable to a team that still wins and loses based on its defensive strength, rather than any attacking dominance.
This version of Arsenal are simply not prolific enough to outscore tough opponents in big games. They don't have the firepower.
Wenger's current squad will only overcome those obstacles by staying stingy and pinching goals on the break.
It is a dynamic which James Olley of the London Evening Standard rightly believes will be just as important in the UEFA Champions League last-16 match against Bayern Munich:
Clinical counter-attacking, hard work, team spirit and a large chunk of luck. The personnel will be different but the same again from Arsenal will leave them well placed to defeat the kings of Europe. ...
If the Gunners are to have any chance of defeating the European champions, they will need to replicate the key component parts of yesterday’s FA Cup success.
It will be just as valuable in the FA Cup if Arsenal are going to survive a tie at home to Everton, as well as the distinct possibility of having to beat City to win the competition.
Chamberlain, with his natural pace, growing technical authority and confidence in front of goal, will be essential to Arsenal's counter-attack plan.
I recently wrote that he is not yet good enough to win matches by himself. While that is true, a few more performances like the ones against Liverpool and Crystal Palace, where he netted both goals in a 2-0 league win, can soon make that statement look foolish.
For now, though, Chamberlain will remain a cog in the machine, but a cog Wenger can't afford to leave out.
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