He’s the big prospect with the big name who arrived for a big fee this summer, and tonight, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain sent his clearest message yet that he’s ready for a role on the big stage.
With Gervinho injured and Theo Walcott resting a minor knee problem, Oxlade-Chamberlain was handed a starting role as Arsenal looked for their first three points in Champions League Group F against a potentially frustrating Olympiakos side. It was his debut in the competition, but within minutes, he looked at home.
His confidence began to ooze after some efficient early touches, and just as the Emirates faithful were beginning to expect excitement from the 18-year-old, he delivered. An intelligent run across the front of the Olympiakos back four created uncertainty, but Oxlade-Chamberlain kept his composure to lash the ball across Franco Costanzo into the net.
Costanzo told the media before kick off that Arsenal lacked the threat of previous years, but his sides nervous defence struggled to deal with Oxlade-Chamberlain’s unpredictability, direct pace and threat from crosses.
It’s those qualities he showcased against Shrewsbury Town in the Carling Cup last week, but as promising a performance as that was, it’s easy to get carried away against a League Two outfit. Tonight, Olympiakos were a notable upgrade, and offered tests to Oxlade-Chamberlain’s defensive side, in reading of situations, tracking back and shielding the ball.
It’s fair to say the results were mixed. He protected possession well in the early stages, but pass selection under pressure was inconsistent. He did track back on a handful of occasions after losing the ball, which was a big positive and something Arsène Wenger has been working on with Alex, but reading of dangerous situations will require more of the Frenchman’s time.
However, it’s going forward where Oxlade-Chamberlain is really at his best, and his performance will no doubt have given Wenger something to think about ahead of Sunday’s North London derby. The often frustrating Walcott should be available, but the temptation will be there to stick with a younger model, who has all the talent, spirit and heart to make an impact.
All in all, tonight was an important step for Oxlade-Chamberlain – a player who almost a year to the day was substituted at half time during Southampton’s clash with Yeovil Town, after struggling to get the better of the Town defence.
Fast forward 12 months, and he’s put the ball firmly in Wenger’s court ahead of one of Arsenal’s biggest games of the season.