After more than four years, doubts still linger over Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain‘s worth at Liverpool, so what next for the midfielder?
What are the words that spring to mind when you think about Oxlade-Chamberlain back in 2017?
Inconsistent? Injury-prone? Squad player?
The 28-year-old’s arrival at Anfield came as a surprise after a hit-and-miss spell at Arsenal, but Jurgen Klopp saw him as someone who could be nurtured, with the Liverpool boss declaring at the time:
“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.”
As Oxlade-Chamberlain heads into the final 18 months of his current deal at Liverpool, however, question marks surround his long-term future.
Curious Reds career
Any Liverpool player who has been a part of this trophy-laden era under Klopp will forever be appreciated, but Oxlade-Chamberlain’s Reds career is a curious one to assess.
There were those tough early months, when acclimatising to the Reds’ style of play was a struggle, before becoming an undisputed key man in the second half of 2017/18.
The goals against Man City live long in the memory – one in the Premier League, one in the Champions League – and he gave Liverpool’s midfield an extra dimension, registering six assists after the turn of the year.
A cruciate ligament injury suffered against Roma was cruel, at a time when Oxlade-Chamberlain’s stock had never been higher, and he has rarely been the same player since.
Too often, the affable Englishman has either been sidelined through injury or only deemed worthy of a place on the substitutes’ bench – the fact that he has only started 53 matches in four-and-a-bit years speaks volumes.
That’s not to say he hasn’t been an asset in the post-ACL years, however, with only Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino scoring more than his eight goals in the title-winning season.
Fourteen goals and 13 assists in 116 games, at an average of one every 8.2 and 8.9 per match respectively, is also a solid return, considering 63 of those appearances came as a substitute.
That’s a direct goal contribution every 190 minutes, or just over every other game, since joining for £35 million.
If you were grading Oxlade-Chamberlain’s time at Anfield out of 10, though, few would give him any higher than a six.
His spell at the club has seen sprinklings of promise and magic thrown in – the goal away to Genk was sensational, for example – but also too many false dawns and ineffective showings.
Oxlade-Chamberlain’s impact has not been dissimilar to another ex-Southampton youngster, Adam Lallana, with the former Liverpool man chipping in with 22 goals and assists apiece in 178 games.
Both should be remembered similarly.
Typically unpredictable season
With Liverpool dogged by midfield injury problems this season, Oxlade-Chamberlain has arguably featured more prominently than expected.
He already has five starts and 12 appearances to his name in 2021/22, starting all of the Reds’ last four outings, against Preston, Brighton, Atletico Madrid and West Ham.
Only Henderson (1,159), Fabinho (843) and Jones (608) have played more minutes than his 568 in all competitions.
In that time, we have seen the many faces of the Ox, from the midfielder not afraid of carrying the ball in tight areas to the defensively suspect figure who played a key part in leaving Fabinho so exposed against the Hammers.
Oxlade-Chamberlain’s ability to break the lines and provide a goal threat are refreshing, but there remains a nagging feeling that he isn’t the all-round package.
While the likes of Fabinho, Henderson, Thiago, Naby Keita and James Milner are figures who know how to manage a game, he still plays on instinct too much.
It can be effective when it comes off, but as we have seen in recent weeks, losing the ball cheaply and not sticking to your defensive duties can be a hindrance.
Oxlade-Chamberlain is approaching 30 but has never fully grown up as a footballer, still playing like the 23-year-old who arrived in 2017.
No Reds midfielder has a lower pass completion rate in the league this season, while only the stricken Harvey Elliott has averaged fewer tackles per game.
There is cause to argue that Oxlade-Chamberlain offers something none of Klopp’s other options can, recently describing himself as a player “that sometimes tries to do risky things.”
And as a new father, who trained throughout the summer as a No. 9 before reverting back to his natural role as a midfielder, there have been obstacles in his path to consistency.
But given his attack-minded style, failing to score and creating only one big chance so far this term is a disappointing return.
Right time to move on?
Next summer feels like a pivotal one in terms of Liverpool’s midfield being given a fresh new look, with too many issues surrounding the current incumbents.
Fabinho is the most important midfielder at the club and is still at his peak, but Milner (36), Henderson (32) and Thiago (31) will all be ageing further by the time next season begins.
Keita’s inability to stay fit is a persistent problem, while Elliott and Jones are young players still learning their trade.
Despite question marks against these players, it still feels as though Oxlade-Chamberlain is the most likely to move on.
His contract expires in June 2023, so next summer will be the final opportunity for Liverpool to receive a healthy fee for him, rather than him leaving for free 12 months later.
Oxlade-Chamberlain will be almost 29 by then, and moving on to pastures new makes sense.
It will allow Liverpool to get him off the wage bill and bring in a more suited figure, while the player himself could flourish as a key man at a lower-ranked club.
Newcastle, perhaps? Or a return to Southampton?
He is easy to warm to, with few players in the Klopp era more natural in front of the cameras, but unless Oxlade-Chamberlain’s fifth season suddenly ignites, it is hard to see him staying.
Perhaps the knee injury struck him down just as he was about to truly explode, but he will be looked back on as an unpredictable supporting actor in a Liverpool tale with many bigger heroes.
The worst thing you can say about Oxlade-Chamberlain is that those aforementioned words – inconsistent, injury-prone, squad player – are still associated with him almost half a decade later.