Liverpool fans were devastated when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain picked his serious knee ligament injury against Roma in April. Despite having been playing regularly for the club for less than six months, Ox had already demonstrated that he was a crucial part of the Reds’ midfield, adding a dynamism and energy that made a real difference, scoring critical goals, assisting Mo Salah on a regular basis and rapidly becoming one of the Reds’ most influential pressing players.
It’s understandable then, that his return is something that Liverpool are hyping up, and something that fans are lapping up. Everyone wants to see him back to his best, as quickly as possible, making a difference to this Liverpool team, as we know full-well that he can do. And whenever news is leaked to the press about his return, there’s a fresh wave of optimistic speculation as to the moment he steps back onto the pitch in full flight.
The latest news is that he’ll return to training in mid-late February and possibly be fit to make his return to the first team squad in March, which naturally has caused a rapturous response from Reds fans, hopeful that he’ll be able to make a critical impact on the Reds’ title race – something that if he can get back to his best before the end of the season he’s more than capable of doing.
But at this stage, it’s sensible to air on the side of caution with regards to Ox, both in terms of how the medical staff and Klopp handle him, but also as fans – we need to make sure that we temper our expectations. Expecting too much too soon from a player recovering from one of the most serious injuries you can sustain on a football field is a sure-fire way to be let down.
The first thing to note is that whilst the journos have been quick to push the narrative that Ox will return before the end of the season, those same journos were very slow to point out that he would miss the entire season, with AI’s Si Brundish revealing we’d be unlikely to see Ox in 18/19 well before it was publicly reported.
The fact is that the sensationalisation around Ox’s return is just that, sensationalism and it’s yet unclear exactly when Ox will be able to step foot onto a football field. The other factor is that these same articles peddle conflicting narratives – simultaneously insisting that the club won’t take any risks with Ox whilst also tantalisingly hinting that he might be available to play against Bayern Munich, which sports scientists would argue is pretty much the definition of taking a risk.
Whilst it remains entirely plausible that Ox hits the ground running in training, finds his fitness immediately and instantly returns to the form of a year ago – form that it took him several months to build in the first place – it would be far more plausible that he’s eased in, making a handful of sub appearances here and there, ready for a significant step up in next year’s pre-season.
The point is that if Ox returns to training in the last week of February, he’ll be pretty much on schedule for his return, not miles ahead of schedule which is the narrative that some are looking to put forward. Even if he was miles ahead of schedule, Liverpool should remain extremely cautious about how they use him.
If Oxlade-Chamberlain is, as we all consider him to be, an extremely valuable player, then we should want him to be treated with the utmost care, taking absolutely zero risks. Throwing a player back into high-intensity situations so soon after returning from a serious injury would be an unnecessary risk, particularly when Liverpool have demonstrated that in Fabinho, Wijnaldum, Shaqiri et al, they have plenty of talent in the midfield to cope without him.
I want Ox to come back as strong as ever, and I want him to be a crucial part of this Liverpool side again, but the simple fact is that it will take time for him to build up his fitness, his form and return to somewhere near his best. Even if he does get some serious appearances this season, it’s unlikely that he’ll be immediately up to speed, and even more unlikely that Klopp would risk him in the big games unless he absolutely had to.
None of this is about Ox not being good enough, quite the opposite. It’s about ensuring that a valuable resource isn’t compromised by being rushed back into action before he’s ready or being rushed back in to trigger a recurrence.
I don’t think for a moment that this medical team are irresponsible enough to put Ox back into action if there’s a significant risk that something will go wrong, and I sincerely doubt that Klopp will throw him into situations that he’s not ready to handle. I’ll be more than happy if Ox is playing football again by mid-March at the top level, especially if that means that he is miles ahead of schedule and that there are no potentially major repercussions for him being on the pitch.
However, all the information presented to us suggests that that remains unlikely, and Ox is still a way away from being ready to get back onto the pitch. Moreover, as I’ve suggested above, expecting him to hit top form immediately after returning from a serious injury – the kind of injury that if we’re being honest some players never fully recover from – is optimistic at best. As Dan Kennett tweeted – it could take Ox another full year before he’s back to the kind of form that saw him help take apart Manchester City.
As I’ve mentioned above, the other thing is that if we’re not sure whether to risk Ox, we should consider our other options. Naby Keita is still due a run of games to hit his best form, Xherdan Shaqiri is being widely eulogised and will be the player most likely to drop out of the side on a semi-regular basis, and it’s given how impressive the 4-2-3-1 has been, we shouldn’t necessarily be clamouring for a return to the 4-3-3, although Ox could definitely make it work.
This is a Liverpool side that have 60 points from 23 games, they’re not a team that absolutely need to take risks with. Klopp has built a squad that is already somewhere close to firing on all cylinders and that isn’t lacking for goals, stability, structure, or getting results. Barring significant injuries to the midfield or forward-line, it’s not clear that a half-fit and not yet in-form Ox would leap back into the team.
To be clear, a fit, in-form, firing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain would definitely be knocking on the door of our best XI and would certainly feature regularly, but even if he’s training by the end of February and even if he’s “fully fit” (although it’s hard to get up to match fitness when you’ve been out for a year) by the end of March, it probably won’t be as easy as throwing him in and him being back to his best before the end of the season – whereas other individuals such as Shaq and hopefully Keita, will have built up strong chronic loads, good form and be somewhere near their best already, negating the desperation that would be required to risk Ox.
It would certainly be good to see Ox back on the field before the end of the season, and if he is slightly ahead of schedule then there’s every chance we can see him play some minutes in the league this year. But it doesn’t appear that the situation has changed significantly for him just yet in terms of his rehab, and on the pitch, the requirement for him to be needed is less than it might well be.
Simply put, we can’t get our hopes up that Ox will be the deciding factor in the title race, and expecting him to return and play ten or so stonking games of his best football is heaping far too much pressure on his shoulders – pressure that hopefully, Klopp is working behind the scenes to remove.
The best case scenario is that Ox makes a tangible difference to this title race, but that’s highly unlikely? The worst case is plausibly aggravating a potentially career-ending injury. And for Ox’s sake, I just hope that we don’t risk him and I hope that we don’t expect too much. Because personally, I want to see a fully fit, firing, in-form Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for years to come – not just in the last month or so of this campaign.
But as I’ve said before – in Klopp we trust. I’m sure that the manager and medical staff, who have all the information to hand unlike us, will be making the right calls.