Not since a 19-year-old Niall Quinn scored against Liverpool FC in 1985 has an Arsenal FC player made such an impressive full league debut. Although he did not score in the home defeat by Manchester United FC last month, it is a measure of the impact Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had on Gunners fans – not to mention United defenders – that the decision to substitute the winger on his first Premier League start was roundly booed by the home faithful.
After Cesc Fàbregas, Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere, the 18-year-old Oxlade-Chamberlain is the latest in a line of young midfielders to emerge under Arsène Wenger. The Arsenal boss signed the precocious son of former England winger Mark Chamberlain after he had helped Southampton FC win promotion to the English second division last season with nine goals in 34 league games.
Costing a reported initial fee of €14m, the teenager's first appearance in an Arsenal shirt was ill-starred, as an injury-ravaged side were dismantled 8-2 by United at Old Trafford in August. Since then, however, Oxlade-Chamberlain has risen to every challenge set before him: a goal on his full debut for the north Londoners in a League Cup victory over Shrewsbury Town FC; a goal after eight minutes of his UEFA Champions League bow against Olympiacos FC; and a hat-trick for England Under-21s in a 3-0 win against Iceland.
For a while Wenger then withdrew Oxlade-Chamberlain from the senior ranks in order to nurture his promise more gradually, but a combination of first-team injuries and the midfielder's burgeoning form forced the Frenchman's hand. The 'Ox' – a fitting nickname for a player of powerful build – particularly impressed his manager as a substitute against Swansea City AFC on 15 January.
When he came on at Swansea I felt 'oomph'," said Wenger. "He had an impact straight away and in a very difficult game he was mature. I thought he had made a big improvement. His defensive work has stepped up as well, but with the ball at Swansea he created danger." Wenger rewarded that display with a first Premier League start against the English champions seven days later – bringing widespread acclaim – before another outing against Bolton Wanderers FC.
Already signed up by a major sportswear company, whose posters run the strapline "You ain't seen nothin' yet", the tyro's subsequent performance against Blackburn Rovers FC supported the marketing men's claim: he scored twice in a 7-1 rout and unhinged the visitors' rearguard with his incisive raids down the left and through the centre.
Comparisons with Walcott are inevitable, given that the 'Ox' has followed the same path from Southampton and possesses similarly searing pace, yet his more athletic frame, eye for the killer pass and fearlessness have also evoked mention of two of the game's greats. "I feel there is always a brand of top players," Wenger said of his latest starlet. "They just play. When you saw Rooney start he played like it was natural; the same with Fàbregas. They are happy on the football pitch and comfortable."
Wenger's only dilemma is how to manage the growing expectations surrounding such a callow talent, and to avoid the risk of exposing him to injury by overplaying him – a problem that has ruled out Wilshere this term. Already, though, the clamour is growing for Oxlade-Chamberlain to be included in the England squad to face the Netherlands on 29 February and even for UEFA EURO 2012.
It reminds me of my own period when I was breaking through and was 18 or 19," said Arsenal captain and Oranje forward Robin van Persie. "He's not someone who thinks about negatives, just positives, and you can enjoy the game like that." When asked whether he should play in this summer's tournament, Van Persie added: "Why not?"
Before then Oxlade-Chamberlain has a more pressing foreign assignment against AC Milan in the UEFA Champions League round of 16, but if similarities are there with Fàbregas then the Rossoneri had better be on their guard. Four years ago at the same stage of the competition Arsenal secured a 2-0 away victory with the help of a spectacular opening goal by the Spaniard. In the bear pit of San Siro, the stage is set for the 'Ox'.
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