If Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is dropped for this afternoon's game with Southampton, it will not be because Arsène Wenger lacks faith in him. The teenage midfielder, who started both of England's World Cup qualifiers, has asserted himself as one of the league's most compelling youngsters.
But that is not the issue here. Oxlade-Chamberlain joined Arsenal from Southampton last summer for £12m, another product of that remarkable footballer factory on the South Coast. Southampton, back in the Premier League, come to the Emirates for the first time today. Wenger has seen players freeze against former clubs before, and is wary that it might happen to Oxlade-Chamberlain.
"He has to forget it is his former club and just play," the Arsenal manager said of the talented teenager. "I don't know if he will start or not. It's always a little bit special for the guys who play against their former clubs. And I've not seen many players who can deal well with that. Sometimes they are absolutely outstanding, or most of the time they have a very average day."
Although Oxlade-Chamberlain plays with teenage courage, Wenger admitted this "former club inhibition" was more of a concern with young players: "You try to assess how big the weight of this special moment will play on their mind. The more experienced they are, the better they deal with it."
Wenger is delighted, though, with Oxlade-Chamberlain's progress in his first year at Arsenal. Not many would have predicted that his fairly limited first-team involvement last season would lead to the national side. But it did, as Roy Hodgson took Oxlade-Chamberlain to Euro 2012 and started him against France in Donetsk.
"He is ahead of schedule, yes, because I didn't expect him to be, honestly, in the national team at the moment," Wenger confirmed. "He is ahead of what I have planned."
During this international fortnight, Hodgson picked the 19-year-old on the left wing for the win in Moldova and the draw against Ukraine. He was not perfect at Wembley on Tuesday night, but he was not the only one, and it was only his seventh cap.
Football is full of talented youngsters who have lost focus after a bright start. International recognition can damage as well as develop. But Wenger is confident Oxlade-Chamberlain has the character to get the benefit, with none of the downside.
Wenger said: "It could be bad if he was a bit big-headed. But he is very level-headed, very humble. So I think it's good to experience the tactical level of the other players in England. When you come from youth-team football basically to that level, it's like you go from primary school to university. And you have to learn quickly. It can be damaging if a guy thinks, 'Hey, look who I am', but he is not like that. In his case it's good."
It is easy to compare the rise of Oxlade-Chamberlain with that of Theo Walcott, who left Southampton for Arsenal at the age of 17 in 2006. It is certainly easy to say that Chamberlain, starting for England, popular with his manager, popular with his fans, is already doing better than the last man whom Wenger plucked from somewhere in a field in Hampshire.
"They are a different style," said Wenger, defending Walcott from unflattering comparisons. "I believe that Walcott is more of a striker type and Chamberlain a more midfielder type. You could see Chamberlain developing into a central midfielder but you could never with Walcott. I see Walcott developing through the middle as a striker and Chamberlain maybe a central midfielder."
Having sold Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain to Arsenal and Gareth Bale to Tottenham, Southampton clearly have the gift of moulding good young footballers. Adam Lallana was on the bench for England on Tuesday and James Ward-Prowse, the 17-year-old midfielder, has impressed so far this season, while Luke Shaw, the left-back of the same age, is the latest to attract Wenger's attention.
The Arsenal manager is unsurprisingly impressed with the work done by Les Reed and others at the Southampton academy. "It is unbelievable," Wenger said. "First of all it is fantastic scouting and they have a good coaching programme with young players. They started that earlier than anyone else. They don't have too many players down there as well, they took many players from here, around our training ground. Like Walcott, and many players from around here. But they must have a good reputation with their youth."Reuse content