When Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain signed for Arsenal a week before his 18th birthday, little could he have imagined that Arsène Wenger would consider handing him the keys to the club’s future six years down the line. At various points his development has looked quite the conundrum. Spells in a variety of positions, erratic form and shaky confidence levels have made him a puzzling player to assess. But on the back of a convincing period in difficult circumstances, the manager’s faith in the 23-year-old seems stronger than ever. “I want him to be part of Arsenal Football Club for the next 10 years,” the Frenchman says.
With Oxlade-Chamberlain nearing the final year of his deal and rival clubs watching closely, such a bold statement might appear tactical. But Wenger sounds genuine when he expands on why he feels Oxlade‑Chamberlain is one of the players he wants to carry the club’s flame. The story goes back to the time Oxlade-Chamberlain first joined Arsenal in the summer of 2011. It was a turbulent month, with Cesc Fàbregas and Samir Nasri exiting at the same time. Wenger had pinned his faith in the best young global talent he could find but a string of departures, chasing the bigger bucks and broader ambition, made him refocus on talent that was closer to home and, in theory, less likely to fly off.
Oxlade-Chamberlain was part of what became known as the British core, a vision crystalised in a photograph taken in December 2012 of five young internationals sitting side by side, pens hovering over their contracts, smiling as they collectively extended their deals to be part of a new future. Left to right the photograph captures Carl Jenkinson, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs and Oxlade-Chamberlain (one 19, three 20 and one 23).
Right now, on the eve of an FA Cup semi-final that feels loaded for Arsenal far beyond what happens on the pitch, it is fair to say the plans for that quintet have not exactly worked out as Wenger imagined. Wilshere, the shiniest gem in 2012, is once again confronting the disappointment of injury and questions over whether he can revive his career to the full. Jenkinson and Gibbs have become peripheral members of the squad who must consider a change of scene if they want regular football. Ramsey has endured a difficult season, beset by knocks and struggles, unable to show the glittering form that made him one of the stars of Euro 2016. Of the five, Oxlade-Chamberlain appears to be in the best place, one of Arsenal’s most positive performers in what has been a beleaguered couple of months.
“He looks like he is on an upward curve,” Wenger says. “He has had little problems, but now he’s getting a little stability and more freedom to play. Before he played a bit inhibited and now he plays with the feeling ‘I’m a player’ and you feel that when he takes the ball. Chamberlain is a player who questions himself a lot. He always wondered: ‘Will I be as good as people want me to be?’ So he has matured – because he is an intelligent boy and gets to the level now where his mental level has adjusted with his football level.”
For those tempted to write off the British core as a failed experiment, Wenger is adamant that Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ramsey remain vital within the club. His faith in them is wholehearted enough to suggest that their futures are more meaningful for Arsenal than his own. “These guys have to take charge of what we have built and the values of the club,” he says. “They should lead and take responsibility to say: ‘Yes, that is how we want to behave, this is how we want to play, let’s go together.’ If they didn’t want to, that would be a huge disappointment. A lot is said about my future but what is more important is the value and spirit of what we have built in 20 years than my own person.”
It is not so much the Britishness as the core that matters to him. “What I love above a passport are players who integrate the values of the club. They have to be ready to defend these values. It’s more natural for local players because they have been educated in Arsenal.”
Wenger will not give up on Ramsey despite the interruptions that have severely limited his effectiveness. “For Aaron it is a very frustrating season. I looked the other day, he started his eighth game in the Premier League. When I realised that it was unbelievable. Injuries, injuries, injuries, injuries and not big ones. But every time niggling and when he came back – boom – a little calf – boom – a little hamstring.
“I hope he will have a strong end to the season because he is an important player for me. When you look at the start of the season, you count [Santi] Cazorla, you count Ramsey to be important players. You come to the end of the season – no Cazorla since October and Ramsey has played less than 10 games.” That goes a long way to explaining the flaws that have been so exposed in Arsenal’s midfield for much of this campaign.
Wenger fondly remembers Ramsey at his peak, scoring the decisive goal in the 2014 final. “A Lampard type,” he says, reflecting on a season when those high-stamina runs into the box yielded 16 goals. This term Ramsey has two, against Preston North End and Lincoln City in the FA Cup.
The long-term future is for another day. On Sunday afternoon, Ramsey and Oxlade-Chamberlain will need to be on song in midfield against Manchester City to give Arsenal a fighting chance of reaching another FA Cup final.