There had to be a point during Liverpool’s curb-stomping of Arsenal this past weekend when a few Gunners thought to themselves I’ve got to get the hell out of here. After being announced as Liverpool’s newest signing today, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain became the first to make good on that sentiment. He probably won’t be the last.
Really, just about everything related to Ox’s exit is an indictment of Arsenal. He had clearly planned to leave the club either this summer or next, since he was entering the final year of his contract and refused to sign the lucrative offer Arsenal put in front of him. To make matters worse, reports are that Oxlade-Chamberlain’s Liverpool salary is lower than the new terms Arsenal offered him. He truly was dead set on getting out of town.
Why? The most straightforward answer is for playing time, both in the absolute sense and position-wise. Ox was probably in line for solid minutes at Arsenal this year (he’s started all three of their Premier League matches) but primarily as a right wing back. Being a wing back sucks. It’s a thankless, exhausting, uncreative, glory-free gig. A young player with Oxlade-Chamberlain’s technical gifts and versatility and ambition would naturally balk at being shoehorned into the wing back position. So it was smart of him to avoid that fate at both Arsenal and Chelsea, the latter of which came close to signing him earlier this week after they agreed to a transfer fee with Arsenal but couldn’t convince Ox to join.
Because of all this, things should be better for Ox at Liverpool. In many ways, Oxlade-Chamberlain is the prototypical Jürgen Klopp player. He’s strong, really quick, always active in attack and defense, a powerful force when running with the ball, can play a wide range of positions, and will sprint his legs off for every minute of every match—exactly the kind of traits Klopp covets. Thus far in his career, Ox has played his best when deployed as a winger, either on the left or the right. There, he can use his speed and agility to burn by players in space out wide and then pick his head up to look for a teammate in or around the penalty box to create a goalscoring chance. Ox shares this physicality and lightning-fast space-eating ability with Liverpool’s star wingers Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah, so he will be a natural substitute for them when those starters need a breather.
However, in a sort of bizarre and very Arsenal way (shout out to Theo “I’ve actually been pretty good as a goalscoring winger my whole career but now I’ve decided that I’m a striker; oh wait, nevermind I’m a winger again lol” Walcott), Oxlade-Chamberlain sees his true future at the central midfielder position. Nevermind that he’s rarely played there in his career, and that when he has he hasn’t really impressed very much, and that he actually is a pretty good winger, which makes his decision to shun the position he’s already demonstrated his quality at in favor of a new one a little strange. No, Ox wants to be a midfielder, just like his childhood idol, Pool Boy legend Steven Gerrard, and thus that is what he will endeavor to be.
Fortunately, a Klopp team is probably the best place for him to realize his Stevie G dreams. Being a Klopp midfielder (at least of the Liverpool variety) is about being fast and strong and able to gallop around in a high, intense press to muscle opponents off the ball before jetting forward in attack on a quick counter. These are all tasks Ox should be able to complete with aplomb. Minutes in the center of the field will be harder to come by than ones out on the wing—Ox will be behind Jordan Henderson, Emre Can, Georginio Wijnaldum, Philippe Coutinho(?), and Adam Lallana (and maybe Thomas Lemar?) this season, plus Naby Keïta starting next year—but he’ll certainly get chances to show what he can do there. In all, Liverpool are definitely a better option for Ox than Arsenal if his concerns are to play with a great coach whom the Englishman can learn from while growing as a player in the positions he most favors.
For Arsenal, the move is unquestionably a blow, though not so much on the pitch itself. With Oxlade-Chamberlain gone, Arsène Wenger will (hopefully) finally ditch the awkward three-at-the-back formation he’s tried for so long now and return to a system of play that better serves the remaining players at the club. The Gunners have lots of players who can play on the wing and through the middle, so Wenger can easily spread around whatever minutes Ox would’ve racked up had he stayed. Keeping or losing Ox was never going to make or break Arsenal’s season.
Still, this is a hit—more a psychological one than anything else, but a hit nonetheless. The rap on Arsenal for so long was that the financial realities of their standing when compared to their richer EPL foes meant all their beautiful, intricate play and the careful and patient coaching and the fun and stable atmosphere that came with playing in Wenger’s team would regularly prove insufficient to retain the club’s most talented players when one of the big boys came in and wrote the player a fatter check. Today, Arsenal no longer play as beautifully—or at least not to any notable extent above many of their rivals—nor is Wenger seen as such an accomplished player whisperer, nor should Arsenal be priced out of the kinds of high salaries the best players attract, and what was once a fun atmosphere seems more stiflingly unambitious and the stability looks more and more like recalcitrance.
That Arsenal promised Ox more money than Liverpool, and he still made the move northward to play for a team posing a more difficult path to the starting XI, reflects a significant change in Arsenal’s status. It’s a decision others will probably take note of in the near future. We already see the likes of Alexis Sánchez and Mesut Özil inching closer and closer to the exit door, with the former very likely to be sold sometime in the next few hours before the transfer window closes. How many other players, young-and-promising and older-and-established alike, will follow suit and try to force their way out of this club that has been spinning its wheels and losing traction for years now? And how long will it take for somebody in charge to actually do something about it? The club itself doesn’t seem to have a clear idea of what it is anymore and where it’s going, but moves like Ox’s sure are telling about how the club’s own players see its trajectory.