To say these are not the best of times for Arsenal would be... let's say generous. In fact, in all of Arsene Wenger’s 21 years at the helm in north London, they’ve never had it worse.
Arsenal are seventh with 31 games played – their lowest position at this stage of the season under Wenger – and in danger of missing out on Champions League football for the first time since the Frenchman arrived from Japan.
There’s full-on mutiny in the stands; more than ever the club’s fans are near-unanimous in their disapproval of the current regime, and there is uncertainty over the contractual situation of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez.
To round up the bleakness, Wenger himself is out of contract in the summer and no one outside the club has an inkling as to whether he’ll stay or go. You get the picture: uncertainty is reigning at Arsenal right now, with the team on the pitch a shadow of the best ones Wenger put together during those early years.
Yet somewhere in the mire there’s hope in the form of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s recent displays. The 23-year-old is proving to be a major bright spot in what is – FA Cup final aside – shaping up to be an otherwise-bleak campaign for Wenger’s men.
When the Portsmouth native arrived from Southampton in the summer of 2011 for an initial £12m, the mood was expectant: sure, it was a lot of money for an 18-year-old who hadn't played above League One, but this was a particularly impressive 18-year-old who went on to shine in his first year at the Emirates Stadium.
His arrival coincided with the departures of Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas, however, and seemed to sum up Arsenal’s place in the food chain at the time: replacing established and ambitious superstars hungry for silverware with fledglings at the start of their careers. As ever, Wenger was confident in his player, pleading for patience in a player who believed was destined for the very top (in a central midfield role, it should be noted).
Arsenal’s British core
Wenger’s thinking at the time was to build a squad around homegrown talents, best illustrated by a December 2012 photograph of Carl Jenkinson, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs and Oxlade-Chamberlain as they put pen to paper on new long-term contracts with the club.
Dubbed the ‘British core’, these were the players who Wenger hoped would lead his side into a brave new era. In hindsight, it’s quite clear that notion was fanciful.
It’s particularly telling that, of the five, Oxlade-Chamberlain is perhaps the only player who might fulfil his potential at the club, encapsulated by his man-of-the-match performance – as a wing-back – in Arsenal’s biggest game of the season against Manchester City at Wembley.
It wasn’t always like this. Wilshere was once the best of the bunch but now faces yet another spell on the sidelines; Gibbs and Jenkinson never fully established themselves and now find themselves contemplating summer moves elsewhere. It would be foolhardy to bet against Ramsey, but his season has been beset by niggling injuries that have sidelined him for far too long once again.
Oxlade-Chamberlain has always been talented: with his explosive pace and unmatched athleticism, he’s perfectly capable of beating men, but for too long he lacked all-important end product after energy-sapping forward forays.
Self-doubt and inconsistency
Wenger once put this down to the player’s constant self-doubt; a player who overthought things when he would have been best served to let his instincts take over. Arsenal’s 3-1 first-leg loss to Monaco in the 2014/15 Champions League last 16 summed up Oxlade-Chamberlain in just a couple of passages of play.
With the Gunners 2-0 down and the clock ticking, he curled home a delightful shot from the edge of the box to halve the deficit and give Arsenal hope. However, in the next phase he lost the ball in his own half, Yannick Ferreira Carrasco bore down on goal and then effectively put the tie to bed.
Never mind being inconsistent from game to game: here was a player defined by two consecutive passages of play in a matter of minutes.
At one point, Oxlade-Chamberlain’s versatility seemed more like a curse than a blessing, as he was shuffled around in different positions with mixed results. Not so recently, though: it's that ability to perform to a satisfactory level in varying positions that has seen him emerge as his side’s best player over the past couple of moments.
When Arsenal switched to a back three, Hector Bellerin would have been the obvious candidate to start as the right-wing-back – but at Wembley on Sunday it was Oxlade-Chamberlain who was preferred to his Spanish team-mate for the second game in a row.
It worked. Defensively, the England international showed discipline in his afternoon’s work and proved to be Arsenal’s most effective attacking outlet. After all, it was his wonderfully measured cross which found Nacho Monreal at the far post for Arsenal’s leveller. He was rightfully named man of the match (and most importantly, didn't have his hair in cornrows – sorry Hector).
It followed his performance in Arsenal’s 3-0 reverse at the hands of Crystal Palace, when he was the only player to emerge with his reputation intact. Earlier in the season Oxlade-Chamberlain was deployed in the attacking third, where he chipped in with vital goals and assists.
With six goals this season, he has beaten his best ever tally for the club. A mid-season change saw him feature as a central midfielder at a time when the club was facing something of a midfield crisis, and he performed admirably.
This is undoubtedly Oxlade-Chamberlain’s best season at the club, and with one year left on his contract, his situation should be treated with the same urgency as Ozil and Sanchez’s negotiations.
Arsenal – and Wenger in particular – have invested six years in the England international, who has been regularly linked with a move away to Liverpool in the past. Now after false dawns and injury lay-offs, it’s time for the club to reap the rewards of their sacrifice and patience.
“I want him to be part of Arsenal Football Club for the next 10 years,” the Frenchman said in the build-up to Sunday’s game. Losing him to rivals, then – and there’s still reported interest from Anfield – would represent a real kick in teeth.
It’s time for Arsenal to match their words with actions and offer Oxlade-Chamberlain a long-term contract befitting his status. He won't stick around for that decade without it.