“I’M happy, really happy, that he could make this decisive moment.
“He needs to get used to the intensity that we ask. He knew when he came and we signed him that this will happen and we would ask for this and it is nice.
“But a lot of players are like ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, I want’ and he is like ‘what do you want from me?’ and he reacts.
“He will be a really important player for us.”
They were the words of Jürgen Klopp after Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s performance against West Ham United at the weekend, as the £35million summer signing grabbed his first league goal for The Reds and capped off what has been a breakthrough month in his fledgling Liverpool career.
Since rejecting Chelsea and signing for The Reds on the last day of August, his attitude if not his confidence levels. At Leicester for example, he started with promise only for his game to suffer with every wrong move.
It’s a theme that has been apparent throughout his career.
Arsene Wenger said two years ago: “I see Alex train every day. He is dedicated, focused, and hungry. But his dad said he lacks a bit of self belief and I can confirm that because he is very critical of himself.
“That’s positive and a sign of top-level sportsmen, but you have to find the right balance of being not happy with what you do without harming the confidence.”
Chamberlain bore the brunt of a lot of criticism in his last few seasons with Arsenal, particularly during what has become a habit of a mid-season slump. As one of the more media-friendly personalities in the Gunners squad and somebody who usually retained his humility during the bad times, he perhaps became the easy target for criticism simply by being more visible to supporters and pundits.
That pressure Chamberlain has traditionally put on himself is more than likely linked to his lacklustre start to life at Liverpool. He hadn’t long been at Anfield before criticism and talk of being “cursed” by poor results followed him to Merseyside.
That came at a time when Chamberlain had only really made substitute appearances — aside from a below par display from the start in the League Cup at Leicester City — coming on when The Reds were chasing games. That’s not an ideal scenario for any player trying to settle into new surroundings, particularly for a lad who has fronted up to criticism in the past.
But Chamberlain came out fighting, just as he did at Arsenal time and again, and put in a purposeful performance off the bench in the 0-0 draw with Manchester United in October, which was quickly followed up by his first Liverpool goal in the 7-0 win over Maribor.
— Liverpool Gifs (@lfcgif) 17 October 2017
“It will open his chest. It will help him a lot,” Klopp said after that debut strike, in reference once again to the player’s confidence.
When he signed for The Reds, Chamberlain was lauded by Klopp, who the German had admired since the player faced his Borussia Dortmund team in 2014. As he said: “He may still be young but he has a lot of experience in the Premier League, Champions League and for his country. Already he is a very, very good player and I think he has the mentality and desire to get even better — and that excites me.”
Chamberlain made his professional debut for Southampton at the age of 16 and the following season he hit double figures for goals in all competitions. He’s frequently been described as a player who has an old head on young shoulders and perhaps it was his quick ascent to footballing fame that made him that way.
He was just 18 years old when he made a £12million move to Arsenal, making 26 appearances in his first season at the Emirates. That feels worlds away from where we are today, which explains why most conversations around Oxlade-Chamberlain involve references to his unfulfilled potential. With over 250 career appearances and having just recently turned 24, he is a player who has plenty of experience despite being shy of his peak years.
That’s not the only reason Klopp chose to stump up a big fee though. His versatility is a huge asset for Liverpool given their fluid shape. While it appeared that against West Ham he would be taking up a role in the midfield three, Klopp actually sprung a surprise by playing a shape closer 4-2-2-2, with Chamberlain operating as a wide attacking midfielder.
That is a position he is perfectly capable of playing, as well being able to take up a more natural winger role, his preferred central midfield berth and as a wing back — though given his latter days at Arsenal it seems that would be lowest down on his list of preferences.
Another big part of his game are his physical attributes. His pace and strength made him an ideal wing-back option for Wenger and for Klopp’s system, where strong, willing runners like Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah have been able to excel.
In fact, as both of Liverpool’s electric forwards burst upfield for the opening goal on Saturday, it was Oxlade-Chamberlain who had managed to keep pace ahead of any West Ham defenders, bar the massively exposed Aaron Cresswell.
It may be that we mainly see Chamberlain operating as a utility player for the time being, but if he keeps up his level of performance and shows Klopp that he can be useful to Liverpool in centre midfield, there’s no reason he can’t make the position his own.
As Wenger said: “His future will be there in central midfield, in a deeper role, because he has a good long ball and penetration from deep. He has good quality to distribute and penetrate individually – very similar to Steven Gerrard.”
While it’s too early now to be making any comparisons with Liverpool’s former captain, if he shows half the heart and determination that his idol Gerrard did, he’ll be on the right track.
Oxlade-Chamberlain’s upturn in form and Liverpool’s win over West Ham were discussed on The Anfield Wrap’s weekly FREE show. To listen to that, press the play button above and if you like it, why not SUBSCRIBE to TAW Player for just £5 a month? A subscription also gives you access to our podcast archive – here are some of the highlights so far…