17th May 2017. By Ryan Baldi.
Since moving to Arsenal from Southampton a week before his 18th birthday in 2011, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has thrilled and frustrated fans inside the Emirates Stadium in equal measure.
His immense talent has never been in question and explains the £12million fee the Gunners initially forked out for the teenager, who had never played first-team football above the third tier of the English game at the time.
But, in a situational that for Arsenal fans will alarmingly draw parallels with another former Saints wonderkid, Theo Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain's slow progress raises concerns over whether his true potential will ever be realised.
A major part of the issue has been that, at 23, the England international has failed to settle into a defined position, flitting between both flanks, centrally as a No.10 and, earlier this season, as one of the deep central midfielders in Wenger's preferred 4-2-3-1 formation.
Or, at least, that was the case until recently.
When Antonio Conte decided to rearrange his Chelsea team into a 3-4-3 system in September following a 3-0 defeat to Arsenal, coincidently it was seen as a tactical masterstroke and similar set-ups were soon adopted at many Premier League clubs up and down the country.
Arsenal boss ArsÃ¨ne Wenger, however, was somewhat late to the party, waiting right up until April before trying his hand at the three at the back approach. The Frenchman's switch to 3-4-3 has proved a resounding success in the closing weeks of the season, helping the Gunners to win seven of their last eight fixtures and giving them a glimmer of hope in the race for the top four.
The move to a back three has not only revitalised Arsenal -- offering defensive solidity, speed on the break and dynamic movement in forward areas -- it has also rejuvenated Oxlade-Chamberlain, who has been operating as a right wing-back, a role that was completely alien to him just a few weeks ago.
The wing-back role requires a very specific skillset of its occupants. The player must have the discipline to prioritise their defensive duties; be fit enough to move up and down the flank, following the ebb and flow of a game for a full 90 minutes; and be effective in attack, providing width for their team on their designated flank.
But the added defensive cover of the outside centre-backs in the three-man backline means that a wing-back has more freedom to attack than a conventional full-back. And the fact that a wing-back's starting position is deeper than that of a winger means that they benefit from more space, are harder to pick up and do not have to have the same level of dribbling ability to manufacture a spot of freedom like an orthodox flanker.
All of this has come together to offer previously unheralded players the chance to assume prominent roles. Wingers who were previously considered hard-working but technically limited have been reinvented as wing-backs, and over-adventurous full-backs have been pushed up the field slightly and had their reins loosened.
Victor Moses was considered surplus to requirements for much of his Chelsea career, loaned out three times with only 23 Premier League appearances for the Blues before the start of this season. Now, as a right wing-back, he is reborn as a crucial component of the Stamford Bridge club's recent success.
Oxlade-Chamberlain has spent far less time in the role to date, but he too looks like a revelation at right wing-back for Arsenal. From there, his pace, dribbling ability and accurate crossing technique make him a constant threat in attack. And with his stamina, work ethic and willingness to track his opposite number, he is growing into his defensive duties with every passing game.
April's 2-0 North London derby defeat to rivals Tottenham Hotspur exposed the defensive weaknesses that remain in Oxlade-Chamberlain's game, but there have been several signs of growth in this regard both before and since that match.
The fact that the Arsenal's No.15 has registered four assists in his last seven outings, putting in a string of impressive performances in that period, shows not only his potential as a wing-back, but also his suitability and comfort within the still unfamiliar role.
Oxlade-Chamberlain's preference may still be for a more central berth within the Gunners XI. When asked about his favourite position in an interview for Arsenal's official website in March the Three Lions star said: "Definitely central midfield. Then right or left, I don't really mind.
"Some days I feel when I go on the left it's more unnatural and you tend to cut in on your stronger foot like Alexis [SÃ¡nchez] does well.
"IÂ find it easier to take people on when I'm on the right and use my pace and go down the outside. Right and left I have good days and bad days so I probably couldn't pick."
Wenger agrees that Oxlade-Chamberlain should eventually revert to a central midfield role, but his recent performances have left the ex-Monaco manager with no doubts over where the former Southampton youngster is most effective right now.
"He's done very well at wing-back. In the future, on long term, he will play in central midfield." Wenger said recently.
"What he is doing at the moment will help him to be a successful central midfielder as well. But at the moment I feel that this wing-back role has suited him well.
"First of all he can use well his power. And it suits him well as well because he is facing the game when he gets the ball. It's a different kind of game to be marked by somebody, get rid, turn and go forward, or to face the game.
"I think he looks to be comfortable when he is running at people and when he has the ball at his feet.
"When we speak about systems, some systems give a little advantage to some players because it just suits them a little bit better, comforts their qualities. He has maybe benefited from it."
Central midfield appears to be where Alex Oxlade Chamberlain's future lies. But if his outstanding form at wing-back continues, both player and manager might have to reconsider that stance.
Alex Oxlade Chamberlain Reborn at Right Wing-Back for Arsenal
17th May 2017. By Ryan Baldi.