The Arsenal Monday verdict: Oxlade-Chamberlain proves Wenger right, and wrong
Teenager’s impressive full debut is a testament to manager, even if he did decide to end it early
If Arsene Wenger hadn’t been under siege, he might have appreciated the irony evident during Sunday’s defeat to Manchester United.
Among all the rancour and recrimination of another damaging loss for Arsenal, there was a shining light, a diamond in the ever darkening gloom.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is 18 years old and yet he gave a performance so brimful of skill, power and confidence that it is impossible not to feel that another star has been born. And not just for Arsenal, but for England too.
The very fact that his substitution precipitated such a rush of vitriol from the disgruntled Emirates faithful tells its own story. As an exasperated Wenger tried and failed to explain afterwards, maybe somebody has made the right decision to sign him and to play him in the first place.
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That was not going to get Wenger off the hook for his untimely substitution decision that undeniably jolted Arsenal’s momentum but did not, as has been widely suggested since, cost them the game.
“Arshavin is the captain of the Russia national team and I have to justify [substituting] a guy of 18 who is playing his second or third game, are you serious,” said Wenger afterwards.
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Everybody was serious because that was how good Oxlade-Chamberlain had looked, not least in showing the maturity and composure to delay and then execute his pass to Robin van Persie for the equaliser just moments before he was taken off.
His inclusion in the starting XI was, it is easy to forget, a major surprise. He had never had that honour before in a Premier League game in his life, having started just six cup matches since arriving from League One champions Southampton last summer.
Yet here he was, pitched into the intensity of a clash with the reigning champions in a game where Arsenal were under pressure to win. Wenger did the same with another 18-year-old in the second half on Sunday in Nico Yennaris.
What other top-level manager would give two teenagers their full debuts in such a game? It is Wenger’s hallmark although a growing number of his critics would have it that it is also his greatest folly.
In some ways, Sunday was almost a microcosm of the last six years at Arsenal – a huge amount of potential shown, but at the expense of a rather more pressing short-term priority. The match in question was lost, Arsenal have now lost all three of their league games in 2012.
It felt reminiscent of last season, when everything fell apart for the Gunners in the last thee months but, in almost the same instant, the rise of another fearless teenaged midfielder, Jack Wilshere, was irrepressible. You don’t get silverware any more at Arsenal, you just get another great young player to enjoy instead.
By the same token those supporters who railed against Wenger on Sunday with veins bulging and frothing obscenities in his direction were, in fact, unintentionally endorsing the Frenchman’s judgment.
“Spend some f***ing money,” they demanded after Danny Welbeck’s winning goal. The fact that the player they wanted to stay on the pitch was a teenager Wenger had quietly captured instead of the big-name, big-money players they had all demanded be bought last summer and still do in this month’s transfer window was another fact lost in the torrent of abuse.
Wenger knows he is far from blameless and what he must do is rediscover the art of finding the right balance between youth and experience, between potential and pragmatic, proven, result-guaranteeing quality.
If he cannot achieve that and bring about some kind of tangible reward, then he knows he runs the risk of more players following the likes of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri out of the Emirates exit door before their talent has fully flowered.
It is a regrettable fact of life in the modern Premier League that, even in his first real exposure at this level, and at such a tender age you look at a player like Oxlade-Chamberlain, and wonder how long it is before he, too, starts to think about whether Arsenal are the right club to match his ambitions?
Wenger must prove to him and everybody else in football that it still is. Arsenal won the race to sign Oxlade-Chamberlain largely because of Wenger’s reputation of nurturing and promoting young talent, from the early days of Patrick Vieira and Nicolas Anelka through the likes of Thierry Henry, Fabregas, Wilshere, and now maybe Oxlade-Chamberlain.
But in an increasingly competitive Premier League landscape where money is no object to some of Wenger’s rivals, the same belief and almost relentless faith in youth could also be what brings about his downfall.
Time is running out, and the natives are restless. The patience to watch another project grow, another youth to flower, is wearing thin.
The supporters want great young players, but they also want success. Wenger must deliver both to not only keep them happy, but to keep his best players and maybe, just maybe, keep his own job.