That Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is going to be sorely missed by club and country is a measure of just how far he has travelled. The serious knee injury “the Ox” suffered against Roma on Tuesday robs Liverpool’s Champions League campaign of an energetic, impactful midfield player whose positional responsibility and protection had done much to aid the development of teenager Trent Alexander-Arnold at full-back.
And England’s World Cup mission to Russia, hardly bountiful with resources, is shorn of someone capable of playing on the wing, through the centre and possibly as an emergency wing-back. The cruelty of the knee injury he suffered in making a tackle on Aleksandar Kolarov means Oxlade-Chamberlain, previously a player who had failed to live up to his early potential, has hit a roadblock on the path to his professional peak and will miss a second successive World Cup.
Jurgen Klopp described his midfielder’s untimely catastrophe as “a really bad injury” in the aftermath of a storming 5-2 win that was definitely tempered by the early loss of one of the most improved players in this season’s Premier League. Oxlade-Chamberlain has been a far cry from the sorry sight of his final Arsenal appearance, 61 hapless minutes in August as his prospective employers rubbed the Gunners into the Anfield dirt with a 4-0 win.
When Oxlade-Chamberlain chose Liverpool, who in turn paid £35m for him, there were collective shrugs. Shouldn’t Liverpool have spent that cash on a proper defender, and where was he going to play? The wing positions had already been bagged by Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane, while central midfield, where he has long held ambitions to play, was already oversubscribed. Meanwhile at Arsenal, he had appeared to have found a niche as a pretty serviceable wing-back off either flank, and had been one of the best players in last May’s FA Cup final defeat of Chelsea.
In choosing Liverpool, Oxlade-Chamberlain accepted a risk too few within the Arsenal cocoon have taken during the long years of Arsene Wenger’s decline. And chief among the reasons was a quest for self-improvement through working with Jurgen Klopp.
Having a manager who footballers want to work with is a huge benefit to a club’s transfer policy. Klopp’s marketability to players is the reason Liverpool were in a one-horse race sign Virgil van Dijk, albeit belatedly and expensively, from Southampton. Van Dijk didn’t want to work with anyone else, while Salah was prepared to return to the Premier League after a previous false start with Chelsea.
Footballers talk to each other, and the generation of talent Klopp brought through at Borussia Dortmund has slowly made its way across Europe. Klopp will work players hard, maniacally so at times, but has improved so many of them, from Mats Hummels and Robert Lewandowski, now lording it at Bayern Munich to Ilkay Gundogan at Manchester City.
Arsene Wenger had such a reputation a decade ago or so, but slowly, a manager who most of the Francophone football world once wanted to work for lost his cachet. The regime that made world stars out of Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira lost its reputation for career development, and Oxlade-Chamberlain was in danger of heading down the same cul-de-sac that Theo Walcott eventually got stuck in.
Walcott, like Oxlade-Chamberlain, came from Southampton as the hottest teenage talent in the English game. A move to Everton at 28 this January brought sly jokes about how he might one day fulfil his youthful talent and similar diminished returns compared to previous expectations now go for former ingenues like Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere.
That pair – their development admittedly also damaged by long-term injury – were part of the Arsenal team whose Thursday disappointment in drawing 1-1 against ten-man Atletico Madrid cast such a contrast to the heavy metal thunder of Liverpool’s sacking of Roma.
Klopp has been operating on a similar budget to Wenger and has pushed Liverpool to the brink of a sixth European Cup. He has improved players that many had given up on. Dejan Lovren is the previous pariah who has become Van Dijk’s best partner in central defence, while James Milner, whose time at Liverpool looked at its end and might have joined Newcastle last summer had owner Mike Ashley agreed to stump up the wages, is a player reborn, breaking the Champions League assists records.
It is almost guaranteed he will receive desperate calls to cover the Ox-shaped hole within Gareth Southgate’s England.
Andy Robertson, meanwhile, offers another example. Three years at Hull City and as a Scotland international hardly had suitors rushing to Humberside, and Liverpool paid just £8m last summer, the price of a back-up player. Since December, though, Robertson’s energy from left-back has embodied Liverpool’s pressing game, as another ugly duckling transformed by his manager’s golden touch.
And if Oxlade-Chamberlain is now a bystander to Liverpool’s glory hunt, he has already demonstrated the wisdom of taking his leap of faith to work with Klopp.