Shut your eyes and picture one of Liverpool‘s central midfielders under Jurgen Klopp. They’re almost certainly running, grafting. Perhaps they’re snapping into a tackle or harrying an opponent. If they’ve got the ball at their feet, they’re probably playing it forward for one of Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino or Sadio Mane to more than likely score.
As if playing in a team with such a devastating front three isn’t detracting enough, the perception of Liverpool’s midfield is hardly helped by the fact they’re flanked by two rock star full-backs in Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold bombing past them to the byline.
Even in their own half they have to fight for attention with Virgil van Dijk, the world’s only superstar centre-back, and Alisson Becker, a goalkeeper with the face of a Hollywood heartthrob and the feet of Johan Cruyff.
Henderson, Wijnaldum, Milner, they’ll never let you down though. Reliable lads, the lot of them. Good honest pros like every team needs. Fabinho, sure, he’s definitely got a touch of class, but patrolling the back four is hardly the most glamorous of tasks, especially when the two aforementioned full-backs are busy racking up assist tallies that would make Andres Iniesta blush.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is different, though; he always has been.
Throwing him into the test tube environment Arsene Wenger engendered at Arsenal always seemed like an odd fit. To quote Klopp, albeit with something he has admitted he regrets saying: “[Wenger] likes having the ball, playing football, passes. It’s like an orchestra. But it’s a silent song. I like heavy metal more. I always want it loud.”
The Ox was always more inclined to Klopp’s way of thinking, at his best in explosive outbursts of talent rather than considered 90 minutes of subtle influence. Even after his most mature, and possibly best, display in an Arsenal shirt, shining as a wing-back in the 2017 FA Cup final win over Chelsea, he told BT Sport in the immediate aftermath: “I’m not one to complain, but the centre-mid role… I’ve always wanted to be Steven Gerrard.”
A £35million move to Liverpool duly followed, via plenty of derision and a 4-0 defeat at Anfield in his last game at Arsenal. A 5-0 defeat to Manchester City on his Reds debut hardly stopped the raising of eyebrows, but within a few months the England international was living up to his word and producing the kind of displays Gerrard would have approved of, most notably in the 4-3 win over City that ended their unbeaten start to the Premier League campaign.
🗣 Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain: “The goals I scored against Man City and Arsenal in front of the Kop are my favourites.
“The intensity of smashing one in, in front of the Kop, there’s no better feeling."pic.twitter.com/7FBaIQmUEM
— Goal (@goal) January 15, 2020
Such momentum was cruelly curtailed by a serious knee injury suffered against Roma and there was a danger Liverpool may have moved on in his absence, winning the European Cup for a sixth time and producing a record-breaking Premier League season while finishing second to City in 2018-19. The arrivals of Naby Keita and Fabinho also saw the 26-year-old pushed further to the periphery.
Yet with Liverpool performing to a higher level than ever before under Klopp, establishing the biggest lead at the top of the table in English top-flight history, Oxlade-Chamberlain has once again made himself a key contributor in the middle of the park.
By starting his fifth consecutive league match against Southampton, he is now on his longest streak in Liverpool’s starting XI. His opener made it two goals in four days. Combining Premier League and Champions League fixtures, that was his third goal from outside the box this season. No other Reds player has more than one, and that’s without mentioning his thunderbastard against Arsenal in the League Cup.
The Ox v Arsenal – Home
There are goals and then there’s this… pic.twitter.com/nue24RlhPr
— GoldenBoyTerry (@IlPhenomeno__) December 28, 2019
“I think a lot of it’s just down to maybe being a bit more clinical, getting myself in more areas where I can shoot and affect the game,” he told Liverpool’s official website after the Southampton win. “Luckily, the last few have gone in.
“But that’s what the top goalscorers do. We’ve got Mo, Sadio, Bobby and they set the example for anyone that wants to learn how to score goals. I get to watch them a lot and try to follow situations and put yourself in the position to score.”
Seven goals in all competitions to date represents Oxlade-Chamberlain’s best return since he was playing in the third tier as a teenager with Southampton, but there are also signs he is developing his all-round game to earn the same level of trust from Klopp as the likes of Wijnaldum and Henderson, contributing more interceptions per 90 minutes (1.5) than any other central midfielder bar Keita (who has played just 227 minutes).
Perhaps Oxlade-Chamberlain will never be able to offer the same sense of control Klopp feels he gains from the old guard, and given Liverpool’s lead at the top of the Premier League, there may be an argument of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. But the Reds have steadily evolved under the German over the past five years from gegenpressing metalheads to all-conquering juggernauts, and the Ox may be the key to the next stage of their evolution.
If Oxlade-Chamberlain can continue his improvement and stay injury-free, maybe we’ll finally stop looking at their midfield as the facilitators in the engine room for Salah, Mane and Firmino. After all, why should they have all the fun?
By Rob Conlon