Oxlade-Chamberlain: more than next Walcott
It was in the aftermath of Arsenal's defeat to Manchester City on Tuesday night that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain nailed the truth about the comparisons made between him and his fellow Southampton academy graduate Theo Walcott. The pair of them, both high-profile teenage signings, were, he said, "completely different players".
It has been an easy trap to fall into. Both joined Arsenal for significant money at a young age – although Walcott was just 16 when he arrived in January 2006 – and both of them are, nominally, right wingers. Certainly, for now, it is a position Oxlade-Chamberlain will have to make his own if he wants a run of games in the first team and it is Walcott who currently occupies it, even though he considers himself a striker.
But their development in the game, and the positions they see themselves playing in the future suggests they are on different paths. Tuesday was only Oxlade-Chamberlain's fifth appearance since his £15m move in the summer, but the 18-year-old was the most eye-catching performer in an Arsenal team that had the better of City for much of the Carling Cup quarter-final but could just not finish them off.
Afterwards he said that the similarity in age between them when they joined the club and the fact that they played in the same position for now made it "an easy comparison to make". "We are, though, completely different players," he added. "Theo is more of a winger or a striker, where as I have always grown up as an attacking midfielder, who has later gone out wide. There are a lot of differences, but at the same time, Theo is a great player so for me to be compared to him is good."
Oxlade-Chamberlain's progress has been relatively rapid and his impact instantaneous. He now has four starts for the club, albeit three of them in the Carling Cup, and two goals, one in the competition and another in the Champions League. Now that Arsenal have been eliminated from the Carling Cup, his challenge is to build upon his one substitute's appearance in the Premier League which came late on in the 8-2 thrashing by Manchester United.
When Walcott arrived in January 2006 he was cup-tied for both domestic cup competitions (Arsenal had already gone out the Carling Cup in the semi-finals) and the team were on their way to reaching their only Champions League final. His first-team debut was at the start of the following season – although that did not stop Sven Goran Eriksson taking him to the World Cup.
Oxlade-Chamberlain, two years older and having arrived in the summer, has been afforded a smoother transition. Arsène Wenger said after the game that the challenge with young players, and Oxlade-Chamberlain in particular, was to "hold them back a little bit and keep them on the training ground" until the moment was right. "[Oxlade-Chamberlain] has shown me he has improved a lot," Wenger said.
The 18-year-old's delivery from the wing already suggests that he has the potential to develop a greater consistency than Walcott managed in that part of his game in the early years at Arsenal. "When I came here, I did not think I was going to jump into the squad straight away," Oxlade-Chamberlain said. "Signing here, I knew I was not going to be involved as much [as at Southampton]. I would have been naïve to think that. But just being able to train with these players every day, listening to the manager and just being around Arsenal Football Club, I have learnt so much.
"I would not have changed anything for the world. All I can do is try my best to impress when I have got my chance. I just have to keep working hard and improving. The next step for me is to push on into the squad.
"At the same time, though, there is no rush. I trust the boss to progress me in the best way, he is a top man, very intelligent and I will work with him as much as he will work with me."
It is easy to forget that Walcott is only 22 and at an age where some players would be glad of a game in the Carling Cup at a club such as Arsenal, he was content to watch from the stands on Tuesday. He is seven games off 200 appearances for Arsenal, remarkable for one so young, although there is one thing conspicuously lacking in almost six years he has already spent at the club.
Defeat in the Carling Cup meant that Arsenal's chances of a trophy this season are, once again, reduced. Asked how he saw the club's prospects of winning their first since 2005, Wenger said "I look at it badly". That is the downside of his devotion to giving the kids a chance in the Carling Cup, although, as Walcott can tell Oxlade-Chamberlain, it has become part of life at Arsenal.
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