Although Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will be remembered for missing Arsenal’s most presentable chance against Barcelona, there was actually another incident in the game that more perfectly encapsulated his night.
It came towards the end of the first half. With Barcelona committed high up the field, the home side were presented with a rare opportunity to hit them on the counter-attack. Jordi Alba was caught out of position, and Oxlade-Chamberlain was able to receive the ball unmarked in his preferred right channel.
He tore up the field, with Mesut Ozil and Olivier Giroud doing well to keep pace in the centre. All he needed to do was keep his head up and pick out a pass. Instead, a clumsy touch saw the ball career away from him to be intercepted by Javier Mascherano.
Oxlade-Chamberlain knew he’d conceded possession, so in a desperate attempt to reclaim the ball clattered into the Argentine. It was a dangerous challenge, and one that saw him pick up the injury that forced him to withdraw from the game early in the second half.
Unfortunately, that passage of play sums up Oxlade-Chamberlain. Astonishing physical potential, real excitement, but an inability to deliver telling contributions in the final third.
Arsene Wenger clearly has huge faith in him. Although he appeared to lose his place in the side at the back end of 2015, Oxlade-Chamberlain has bounced back to start five out of the last eight games. However, in that period he has delivered just one goal and one assist. For a player who is ostensibly part of the front three, that’s not good enough.
Sadly, that’s been the story of Oxlade-Chamberlain’s career thus far. Few doubt his ability: in every game there will be flashes of skill or a fearsome shot that demonstrate why Wenger persists with this erratic talent. Yet when it comes to the crunch he is rarely capable of turning that talent into tangible end-product. He’s 22 now, and has been at Arsenal for nearly five years. Eventually, questions have to be asked about his development.
Even Wenger’s patience appears to be wearing thin. After the Barcelona game, he spoke angrily about the first-half chances Arsenal missed. He must have been thinking at least partly of Oxlade-Chamberlain’s tame shot when the Barca goalie was prone.
A question mark now hangs over Oxlade-Chamberlain’s place in the team. Wenger’s decision may be made for him—the latest reports suggest that Oxlade-Chamberlain may have damaged knee ligaments in the collision with Mascherano, and could be sidelined for several weeks. Even if he recovers quickly, Wenger should consider replacing him for a period in which Arsenal face several crucial Premier League fixtures.
So who should step into that right wing role? Probably not Theo Walcott, who was just as ineffective after replacing Oxlade-Chamberlain as a sub. One option is Joel Campbell, who can consider himself a little unlucky to have been dropped after some good performances in the Christmas period. He has three times as many competitive goals as Oxlade-Chamberlain this season.
Another alternative would be to restore Aaron Ramsey to the right flank. With Francis Coquelin already back and Santi Cazorla not too far away, the Welshman is not needed quite so badly in the centre. In the interim, Wenger could slot new boy Mohamed Elneny in alongside Coquelin and shift Ramsey wide. It’s not the Welshman’s natural position but it seems to help the balance of the side.
Equally, Wenger could choose to use this opportunity to reintroduce Danny Welbeck to the side. The England international played on the right wing a lot last season, and combines a great team ethic with searing pace and intelligent link-up play.
If Oxlade-Chamberlain is badly hurt, he’ll justifiably be the recipient of plenty of sympathy. However, if he’s fit, this is not time to pander to his underperforming talent. Wenger must be ruthless and replace him in the side regardless of his fitness status.