TWO weeks ago in this very column, I wrote about how Liverpool seemed to have mastered the art of beating the so-called “lesser” sides. Then they went and drew with Everton and West Brom.
Last week in my match ratings for the Merseyside derby I spoke about it being more annoying that Dejan Lovren never scores at the other end than his various adventures in his own penalty area. Then he bagged his first goal in 14 months yesterday at Bournemouth.
With that in mind, this week’s column will largely be about the fact that The Reds have never beaten Arsenal 12-0 and how Jessica Alba has never turned up on my doorstep wearing nothing but a festive bow and a smile (Neil Ruddock did once, but that’s another story).
Or at least that’s what it was going to be about, but I had a change of heart. Hopefully the jinx effect won’t occur a third time now that I’ve decided to write about the noticeable improvement of one Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
There was scepticism all over the place when Liverpool decided to invest £35million in the former Arsenal utility man. The biggest compliment anyone seemed to be able to pay him was: “At least he’ll be a decent squad option,” which had been the very problem that made him want to leave the Emirates Stadium. That he would only ever be seen as a decent squad option.
Oxlade-Chamberlain was a promising youngster at Southampton and quickly made his big money move to Arsenal to follow in the footsteps of Theo Walcott. However, like Walcott, he never really reached the heights expected of him in North London. Unlike Walcott though, he decided he wasn’t going to accept it and forced a move to try and find the best version of himself on Merseyside.
It was an unfortunate start to life at his new club. Oxlade-Chamberlain made his debut at half time at Manchester City when The Reds were already a man down and about to be torn apart by a team we now know are on course to become the most lethal team the Premier League has ever seen in a single season.
He found appearances hard to come by as Jürgen Klopp held him back while he learned the basic ropes of playing for Liverpool, which are very different ropes to the ones at Arsenal.
Those who weren’t all that happy by the signing of the 24-year-old were feeling vindicated as they saw him initially struggle to put in anything more than not bad performances in cameo appearances, followed by a very off night at Leicester in his first start for the club in the League Cup defeat.
From the day Oxlade-Chamberlain signed, the same question kept getting raised by fans and pundits alike. “When their defence is so wobbly, why did Liverpool invest so much money in a player who has had an unremarkable career to date and plays in a position where The Reds are fairly well stocked?”
Well, why does any team sign anyone? Because they rate them highly as a player and there’s always a need at top clubs for good players. People who didn’t rate Oxlade-Chamberlain seemingly couldn’t get their head around the idea that Klopp did. Upon sealing his signature on transfer deadline day in August, Klopp enthused about his new man. “I remember the first time I saw him play live – it was at Dortmund in 2014 and he came on as a sub that day and made a big impact.
“He stood out immediately because of his pace and skills and his attitude in such a big game for a young player; I remember him chasing back to make a brilliant challenge on [Henrikh] Mkhitaryan in the box to save a certain goal.
“Since then I have followed him and when I heard it may be possible to sign him I didn’t need to think twice.”
Oxlade-Chamberlain turned down a move to Chelsea for a higher fee than the one Liverpool paid in order to sign for Klopp’s side, and the German was convinced that it was a big signing to be excited about.
“I hear a lot of talk about positions but let’s talk about the player,” Klopp added.
“He is someone with really good abilities who always gives everything for his team. A player that is positive and willing to take risks to try and make positive things happen.
“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.
“This is someone making a tough decision to leave one great club and come to another great club and I think he had many options so to get him means I am delighted.”
He made a good first impression at the club, in particular in videos of his first day where he appeared polite and level-headed in his interviews and his interactions with all the new faces, including flirting relentlessly with Carol and Caroline in the kitchen, making them momentarily forget all about their lost love Lucas Leiva. It was the sort of introduction that made you really want him to succeed, not least because Liverpool having more great players is never a bad thing.
Oxlade-Chamberlain has spent the vast majority of his adult career playing under Arsene Wenger, a world class and meticulously methodical coach, but one who has his own ideas about how football should be played. The same things can be said of Klopp, but his ways are very different, so it was always going to be a shock to the system for Oxlade-Chamberlain coming to Liverpool, but his showing in the derby last week followed by his man of the match performance in yesterday’s 4-0 demolition of Bournemouth was perhaps the first sign that he’s starting to “get it”.
He ended the game on the south coast with one assist, made four key passes (as many as Philippe Coutinho), three tackles, three interceptions and had a total of 11 possession gains. He was also very unlucky not to find the net himself after a superb sliding tackle on Jordon Ibe saw him get back up and carry the ball forward before smashing the post with a left-footed effort.
What seemed apparent in his performance was not just the numbers and general dynamism of it, but that he appeared to be oozing confidence. Anfield Wrap contributor Paul Cope has spoken about it in great detail recently, that it’s something you can’t measure but is a tremendously important factor in any player and team.
From what I’ve seen of him, Oxlade-Chamberlain might just be the most confidence-dependant player in English football. When things aren’t going for him you can tell how much he’s trying to force it, beating himself up when something doesn’t come off and just having those moments where the ball seems to bounce off him. However, once it clicks, he becomes a real player.
It happened at Arsenal all the time where, following a standout performance, he would then go on and be The Gunners’ best player for about six-eight weeks, before getting injured or fading into the background again. The key at Liverpool will be to make sure those spells are more stable and last for longer periods.
When asked yesterday if Reds fans were seeing the best of him, Oxlade-Chamberlain told the club’s official website: “Not yet, definitely not yet.
“I feel like I’m settled in now, and I’m learning the ropes and my roles and responsibilities. That’s always the thing that’s hard to adapt to. Once you get comfortable with that, you can start to relax more.
“I’ve been doing better and it has been coming, but there’s definitely more to come from me. And I’ll be doing everything I can to bring that out.”
He also indicated in that interview that he’s starting to appreciate the way his new team plays and how he fits into that.
“We set the trap, win the ball high and then we go. And when we go, we know we can be devastating,” he added.
“It’s nice to be a part of. It’s great that the attacking boys have been doing well. But I think you’ve got to give big credit to people like Dejan and Raggy at the back as well; when you dominate games you can always be caught on the counter.”
That he’s already calling Ragnar Klavan “Raggy” shows just how comfortable he’s starting to feel at the club, as did the moment that arguably got people talking even more than his performance at the Vitality Stadium yesterday.
In a post-match interview with Sky Sports, standing alongside Coutinho, Oxlade-Chamberlain took it upon himself to intervene when the Brazilian was clearly struggling to answer an awkward question about his future. He said what Coutinho couldn’t, that he has been nothing but professional since the summer transfer window closed and has been putting in excellent performances of late, while putting his arm around his teammate and patting him on the Liver bird.
— Mark Hamilton (@Redhammy71) 17 December 2017
The bit that made that moment for me was seeing the beaming smile from Coutinho, both relieved that he’d been spared having to come up with some dull stock answer that managed to both leave the door open for a move to Barcelona that any fool knows he wants, while also not offending his current club or allowing for any sensational headlines. He literally wipes his brow moments later in a body language “this is what relief looks like” masterclass.
Who knows, that simple act of “I got your back yo” might have even caused Phil’s heart to grow three sizes that day, and make him realise that he’s got a pretty good thing going at Liverpool. No way does Sergi Roberto do the same thing in three years when Coutinho is angling for a move to PSG.
He’ll have been on that flight home, having a little doze before getting bladdered on vodka Red Bulls at the Christmas do, dreaming about him and Oxlade-Chamberlain at the arcade together, a montage of winning prizes, shooting zombies, racing cars, all while Queen’s You’re My Best Friend plays over the top. Alberto Moreno and Bobby Firmino look on well jealous in the background. Moreno’s candy floss falls to the floor.
At the party at Formby Hall later that night, Phil’s got his arm round Oxlade-Chamberlain, prodding him in the chest with an empty bottle of Desperados and slurring his words as he speaks to Perrie Edwards, going “See this guy here? He’s a fucking legend! Won’t hear a word said against him. Love him and his little face *hic!*” He then stumbles away to challenge Firmino to a dance off while muttering something about Lovren’s clothes.
This is of course just the beginning for Oxlade-Chamberlain. He needs to push on from here and make himself a key player in the squad for the next few months before his detractors will start to acknowledge that he wasn’t a waste of money, but the only way you can do that is by making a start, and he has done just that.
Just days before he joined Liverpool, Oxlade-Chamberlain played his last game for Arsenal at Anfield and was on the wrong end of a 4-0 mauling. This Friday he will be lining up at the Emirates Stadium on the other team, hoping to have a happier time of it. The stage is set for him to show that his decision to leave London for Liverpool was the correct one.
There, managed to go an entire article without calling him “The Ox”… Ah shit.
There’s only one week to go until Christmas Day and you haven’t got your Liverpool supporting mate/sibling/parent/partner a present yet have you? Well David’s got you covered. His new book, Kloppite: One Man’s Quest to turn Doubters into Believers chronicles Jürgen Klopp’s first two seasons at Liverpool and is available from various Waterstones and WH Smiths in the North West, or online wherever books are sold. Alternatively you could just buy it for yourself, because it’s well better than another pair of socks or novelty pants.
“He seems to have found what he knows he can be good at with the lads around him. I think that’s crucial and it means that Liverpool have got a very good footballer.”
— The Anfield Wrap (@TheAnfieldWrap) 17 December 2017