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Why Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain can make Liverpool even better
Liverpool lost to Atletico Madrid but Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain won admirers with his performance, writes Adam Bate. Could he have a bigger role to play under Jurgen Klopp in the future?
Last Updated: 21/03/20 2:07pm
Liverpool's elimination from the Champions League at home to Atletico Madrid was not a night for positives. The European crown was relinquished and, as it turned out, the club's season – everyone's season – was called to a halt. What should have been a campaign of celebration looks likely to end in odd circumstances through no fault of their own.
But the unwelcome delay provides time to analyse as well as look forward to the future. The performance of the best player on the pitch for much of the first 80 minutes at Anfield on that Wednesday evening should excite Liverpool supporters and Jurgen Klopp in particular.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain delivered one of his finest displays for the club.
His driving runs from the right side of Liverpool's midfield added a new dimension to their play. One dart down that flank had the fans in the Sir Kenny Dalglish Stand on their feet. Another such run and cross set up Gini Wijnaldum for the game's opening goal. By that stage it was already blindingly obvious where the threat was coming from.
Trent Alexander-Arnold has been the chief supplier for much of the past three seasons. Mohamed Salah, ahead of him in that right-forward role, has been the team's top scorer in that time. But Oxlade-Chamberlain's willingness to run on the outside, providing overlaps and overloads, still gives Liverpool something they do not have without him.
The role of Liverpool's midfielders has long been clear. They are the facilitators for the team's full-backs turned playmakers. It is a tried and trusted model. A successful one. So much so that any criticism of the midfield's attacking input feels moot when Europe - and now the Premier League - has been bent to Klopp's whim. Liverpool's way works.
As such, it is still not clear that a more traditional type of No 10 would find a role in Klopp's side. His views on that playmaker are well documented. But that does not preclude the possibility of a midfield with more. A midfield that can bring energy and counter-pressing but also provide a more potent goal threat. Atletico had a taste of that in Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Naby Keita, of course, was the man most likely to introduce that under Klopp. His goals and assists record at RB Leipzig was impressive. After a long wait for him to arrive, there have been hints and clues as to what he can offer. But perhaps it is Oxlade-Chamberlain, a natural athlete himself and a willing off-the-ball runner, who could become the game-changer.
He has the physical endurance to make those runs beyond the forwards that break lines and create the much needed space for Alexander-Arnold to cross or Salah to cut inside and shoot. Importantly, Oxlade-Chamberlain is also fit enough to move back into shape as part of that midfield three to ensure Liverpool remain compact in the transition.
That is still an area of concern. What the team gains in one respect, it risks losing in another. Perhaps that explains Klopp's thinking in withdrawing Oxlade-Chamberlain for James Milner late in the game against Atletico when it became clear that the slightest error in allowing their opponents an away goal on the counter-attack would prove costly.
That substitution has become a familiar one for the player himself. The only time that Oxlade-Chamberlain has played the full 90 minutes this season was against Monterrey in the semi-final of the Club World Cup out in Qatar in December. He hasn't always welcomed the board going up and reacted angrily when removed against Manchester United in January.
Klopp later conceded that he might have overreacted to a knock picked up that afternoon. "You start looking in detail and sometimes in a defensive situation, a midfielder is not where he should be and then there is the impact," he explained. "You have to make a decision." He went on to stress that Oxlade-Chamberlain is "unbelievably important" to the team.
The player's inclusion against Atletico was a welcome opportunity and even in eventual defeat it should not be forgotten that he seized it. Perhaps the time has come for more minutes.
Oxlade-Chamberlain has already scored seven goals this season. That is more than Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson have ever managed in a season for Liverpool. Even James Milner, with penalties bolstering his tally, has never beaten that.
Clearly, he is a different type of midfielder to the other options at Klopp's disposal and it makes sense that when Liverpool have enjoyed success with the current template they should be cautious about changing that. But Oxlade-Chamberlain, now 26, looks ready to assume greater responsibility. If Klopp continues to trust him, he will be rewarded.