Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s arrival at Anfield on deadline day of the 2017 summer window kind of went under the radar. In any other window, a £40million signing from a rival club would’ve been huge news. A statement of intent.
But with reports the day prior hinting at a £200million war chest, many fans had expected to see Virgil van Dijk and Thomas Lemar make their long-awaited moves to Merseyside. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s arrival, in the nicest way possible, felt insignificant.
The England international was a clear talent but many had concerns over his injury record, where he’d fit into the team and the price tag. The former Arsenal man hadn’t carved out a set role at the Emirates, filling in at wing-back, as a winger as at times as a centre-midfielder, and had just 12 months remaining on his deal.
On paper, Liverpool had spent £40million on a utility man. It’s a move top teams pull off when they’re stocked everywhere, not during the same window you put a pin in plans to sign a £75million-rated centre-back while maintaining two of Dejan Lovren, Joel Matip and Ragnar Klavan were good enough for a team with top-four hopes.
And life on Merseyside didn’t get off to the best of starts for the Southampton academy graduate. He had a forgettable match against Leicester City as the Reds crashed out of the Carabao Cup. A performance that resulted in many clickbait websites creating articles made up purely of Liverpool fans reacting to what they’d just witnessed from their new No.21.
However, like with Andy Robertson last season and Fabinho this time around, manager Jurgen Klopp bided his time with a player he had faith in. He just needed to get him up to speed with the Liverpool system before he was prepared to unleash him onto the unsuspecting Premier League.
His first standout performance came in the victory over West Ham United at the beginning of November when Klopp switched it up and deployed a 4-2-2-2 shape in an attempt to fully utilise the loaded forward line he had at his disposal. Klopp reverted back to his tried and tested 4-3-3, perhaps to give the Reds more structure and control in the middle third, and Oxlade-Chamberlain didn’t start featuring regularly until December. He chipped in with an assist against Bournemouth and a goal against Swansea City on Boxing day.
It was not until the visit of Manchester City in January though that people really began to take notice of just how influential he could be as a centre-midfielder. Pep Guardiola brought his unbeaten Cty side to Anfield and were blown away by the home team, with Oxlade-Chamberlain instrumental in creating the chaos and disorder than the Reds thrived in.
Klopp, his staff and the recruitment team identified the ideal profile for the third man in the midfield three and realised Oxlade-Chamberlain ticked a number of the boxes. The Liverpool boss harnessed his No.21’s explosiveness in possession and his ability to beat a man in one-vs-one situations, usually seen in wide areas, and unleashed it centrally. He was like a whirlwind perfect for the transitional football the German tactician wanted his side to play.
His goal against City came out of nowhere. A long ball forward resulted in Mohamed Salah and Nicolas Otamendi tussling for it. Roberto Firmino and Fabian Delph went after the second ball which then ricocheted out to the former Arsenal winger.
Most in this scenario would probably look to Salah who had peeled away into the space vacated by Delph but Oxlade-Chamberlain goes through the gears to leave Fernandinho for dead. Otamendi is caught between two minds; goes he close down the man in possession or keep tabs on Salah, and he can’t react quick enough to block the shot which whizzes past Ederson.
It was a similar story in the Champions League clash between the two sides. The ball finds it’s way to the Liverpool midfielder about 35-yards out from goal. Just three touches later it’s hit the back of the net and Oxlade-Chamberlain is wheeling away to celebrate in front of the Kop.
He’s a player who comes alive during the transitional moments. He went from being a utility man in London to being Liverpool’s secret weapon in midfield. Klopp didn’t have a player like him and top teams didn’t know how to stop him. As soon as the Reds ramped up the tempo for the inevitable blitz, it was just organised, unstoppable chaos, with the Oxlade-Chamberlain running riot with the attacking trio.
His 2.32 successful dribbles per 90 minutes from January to April were more than the other midfielders in Red managed as a collective. He was the ace in the pack for Klopp in those frenetic moments.
It may have been different in Kyiv had he been available. Losing him was a massive blow for the Reds because simply put, he’s irreplaceable. There are very few players in world football with a profile like his. Naby Keita arrived to add that dynamism and unpredictability to the midfield but he lacks that raw acceleration of Oxlade-Chamberlain. He can slalom his way past a handful of players and create space for team-mates but he can’t burst past the opposition like the Liverpool No.21 can.
Klopp was no doubt looking at ways to shake things up this season but the loss of Oxlade-Chamberlain no doubt played a part in him moving away from the 4-3-3. Without him, it’s a little flat in midfield. The Liverpool boss is often praised for developing the likes of Andy Robertson and Mohamed Salah but the job he did on the former Arsenal man to develop him from a utility man into a key component of a midfield that reached the Champions League final is just as incredible.