By Shaun Wylde- @ShaunWylde
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain played a massive role in Liverpool’s exciting 2017/18 campaign. The former Arsenal man, usually deployed on the wing, moved to Liverpool to secure more appearances in a central midfield position and heavily impressed there in the latter stages of the season. His off-the-pitch likeability, which he had a reputation for at Arsenal, meant he quickly became a fan favourite but it was his ability on the pitch that made his signing look like a great deal for Liverpool.
At the time, the signing of Ox wasn’t one that got people off their seat, I remember talking to family members that are season ticket holders who were less than impressed with the end to our transfer window as it only consisted of him joining on deadline day when a lot more was hoped for. He made his debut a few games into the season and took a while to really stake a claim for a spot in the team, similar to how Robertson was left out in favour for Moreno. As with Robertson this was simply a case of Klopp waiting for him to fully adapt to our style and when he was more integrated he lit up our midfield in an exciting way, providing an option that we didn’t actually possess before.
His pace when running into space and his work rate was what made him a vital member of Klopp’s Liverpool during our Champions League campaign and push for top four. Whereas Philippe Coutinho offered us class in an attacking sense, Ox offered us more defensive solidarity with his awareness of when to cover the full-backs and he also provided great service for the attacking players at the same time. While Coutinho is obviously the better player, it is certainly arguable that the former Arsenal man is the better all-round midfielder as he was more complete in these aspects.
So its no surprise that it was when the Brazilian left in January that Oxlade-Chamberlain really came into his own. For me personally, he truly announced himself in the midfield position, and at Liverpool, with his opening goal at the Kop end in the 4-3 victory over Manchester City at Anfield. That goal represents a major part of what he offered, dangerous runs into space between the lines with the ball at his feet and willingness to take a chance from distance if a passing option wasn’t open for a teammate. He pushed on from this game to truly cement himself in Liverpool’s starting eleven and it was only a freak injury in the Champions League semi-final tie against Roma that halted the progress he was making.
Since Ox is now out for an extended period, the Reds have lost a major component of their midfield and while we look extremely strong this season, I find myself ruing the fact Ox isn’t available every week. It has been strongly suggested that Ox might not make an appearance until March and there have been rumours that he won’t play a part at all this season. So what can the reds do to replace what he offers?
In my opinion, we can make do the way we are going until January and then we would have to secure a more attacking presence in midfield. The signing of Nabil Fekir in the summer would have provided a different option to Ox with the same basic outcome of a more attacking threat in midfield and there is always the chance of revisiting that one in January as long as Fekir doesn’t sign a new deal. The Lyon man scored over 20 goals from midfield last season and was ear-marked by the club journalists as Coutinhos replacement so no matter how strong the squad feels now there will always be a sense of what could have been if he doesn’t join. While he is quite different to Ox he would certainly improve our options in midfield and as back-up to our front three.
If Fekir is not a viable option then another player Liverpool have been linked with is Lucas Paqueta, a 21-year-old attacking midfielder who plays for Flamengo in the Brazilian league. There is a lot of buzz about this player at the moment and he definitely fits the mould of a Phillipe Coutinho replacement, which would ease the burden of losing Ox significantly. His pace, guile and ability make him a very interesting proposition and as he is still so young there is a lot of untapped potential there that Klopp could bring to the fore front. He would be a difficult signing and, like Fekir, isn’t an Ox replacement as much as a Coutinho one but in replacing Coutinho we would definitely fill the hole that losing the Englishman has left.
However, Liverpool are not really a club that makes big moves in January as long as Klopp has been here (Virgil van Dijk aside), so it is more likely that we will have to look to within our current squad to assist in this matter. The most obvious option within our own squad is Naby Keita. I feel that the Guinean has got off to a bit of a slow start, his Premier League debut against West Ham was very smooth but he hasn’t really kicked on since then. There have been flashes of brilliance but I honestly feel like we haven’t even seen 20% of what he can do.
This isn’t a problem though, I preached patience with Naby myself earlier in the season, so I am excited to see what he will offer further into the campaign. Right now I feel he needs to get sharper in his attacking plays, if he is to fill our Ox shaped void then we need him to be a lot swifter and decisive in the final third. He’s doing the defensive work well enough but there is a lot of pressure on him at the moment to support our front three in the same way a number 10 would and I’m not sure he’s done quite enough there yet. This could be a contributing factor to why we haven’t got our free-flowing football going yet. Its still early days obviously but sooner or later Naby will be expected to pick up his sharpness in this area if we don’t sign anyone in January and its only then that I’ll feel like we won’t be missing Chamberlain’s presence.
If, for whatever reason, Naby doesn’t improve his input attacking-wise then there is always the option of throwing Xherdan Shaqiri in midfield, as we saw to great effect against Southampton. The former Stoke attacker was originally signed as a back up to the front three but he also spent a little bit of time playing in the number 10 role during pre-season and it would be interesting to see him in this position as the season progresses. Moreover, it would be intriguing to see him actually play as a number eight as Ox did, with the same defensive responsibilities but also with the onus on him to support the front three. With a defensive midfielder next to him, I feel like the Swiss could operate as a shuttler quite well, his high volume of passes plus his ability to keep the ball and his creativity would make him a more than worthy successor to Ox and he would undoubtedly help provide what we’re missing at the moment.
Oxlade-Chamberlain is going to be a big loss this season and we’ll feel that more as the season progresses but there are options for Liverpool in the transfer market and also within the current squad, we have to make sure we are proactive with this situation so that we don’t miss out on trophies because we were slow to act. There’s a lot riding on this season and a ton to play for, any mistake could be costly. Not replacing what Ox provided us would be a big mistake.