After his powerful introduction 19 years after his father against Brazil in the Estadio Maracana, Arsenal’s very own Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is grabbing the headlines this week. It was not quite a John Barnes worldie but Ox’s involvement in the build up and clinical finish for England’s first goal has drawn other comparisons. On breakfast radio the morning after our very own Real Romford Pele, Ray Parlour likened Alex’s style and potential to that of one of England’s finest ever midfielders, Paul Gasciogne.
Is this an outrageous statement? On the face of it perhaps it is because many of us will remember Gascoigne bursting on the England scene as a youngster under Booby Robson pre Italia 90. We recall him dazzling on that stage before being booked in the World Cup Semi and being unable to control his tears. Gooners of my age will try and forget the awful day at Wembley in 1991 when his individual brilliance robbed us of a League and FA Cup Double. Would any of us instantly think of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain now and picture him at the level Paul Gasgoigne was at in 1990?
Would it be foolhardy to suggest that Ox rather the Wilshere is the heir apparent to the throne of English playmaker, which despite the so called Golden Generation has not been filled since the 1990s.Yes we have has Scholes, Ince, Gerrard and Lampard, but only Joe Cole was ever spoken about as a successor to Gasgoigne? Why? Were these guys not top players? Are they still not top players? In truth yes they have all been great players but only Cole was a dribbler who could run at the opposition with the ball at his feet and to take the battle to the other team through the middle park. So where did successive England managers play Joe Cole? Out wide of course. No England manager since Robson has had the balls to pick the type of player Gascoigne was or Cole could have been and play him in the advanced midfield role, in a 2 or a 3.
Ever since I heard Parlour make the comparison between Ox and Gazza it is all I can think about both for Arsenal and for England. I met Alex when he was an U15 school boy with the Saints. He used to sit waiting for his dad who was coaching my son at Pompey at Under 14s. Do you know the first thing that hit me back then? He was fully developed at 15. He was already in a man’s body. Now at 19 he has the body of a muscular sprinter, with the low centre of gravity and the close control that often comes with it. People forget Gazza was only 1.75m in height (5ft9”) and it seemed to enable him to glide past people with the ball at his feet but his upper body strength was utilised simultaneously to shoulder defenders away. They seemed to bounce off him and I see this in Jack Wilshere but particularly in Ox who is 5cm taller than Gascoigne but is even more physical and much faster over the ground.
Those who have read me or talked to me over the past year or so will know I have championed Alex. In his first season perhaps I did this too much. I recall saying we had no need to sign Gotze because we had Oxlade-Chamberlain. I wrote a blog before the last game of 2011/12 versus WBA with the slogan within “The Ox must play!”
There have been times this season when I thought he was not progressing and other times when I have wondered why Wenger was not utilising more often? I want him to play through the middle but that area is hugely congested for the Arsenal at present. So much so, that even Jack Wishere has not been guaranteed a start. Now I love Cazorla in the advanced central role and equally I enjoy seeing Rosicky there. Both bring differing attributes to the job but Wenger seems to see Santi wider and Tomas is no spring chicken. For me Jack and Rambo are competing for the second pivot so Ox is the heir successor to the CAM role. I said at the start of the season that we have not replaced the Cesc like vision and eye for a pass to split defences in that role so having a runner/dribbler who can carry the ball and commit defenders is the best alternative. (This is of course assuming Fabregas is not returning to take the CAM role. The odds on that happening are tumbling at Bet365 Football Betting.)
Where am I going you may be wondering and I have just had to remind myself as it goes!
I will tell you where I am headed and it is all around age and expectancy in modern football and how it was so different in Gazza’s day. More pertinently though I think the question is whether it was better back then? Both Gascoigne and Ox made their first starts in the top flight aged 18. Gazza with Newcastle in 1985, and Oxlade-Chamberlain with Arsenal in 2011. In this respect therefore the early career paths are similar but there is a huge difference when you look at the International careers.
Looking back we think Of Gascoigne bursting onto the scene as a kid in the 1990 World Cup. The reality is very different. Gazza won the Young Player of the Year Award in 1987/88 but he had not played for England and was still playing U21 football. He has to wait until; he was 21 and 6 months until he made his debut and it was not until he was in his 23rd year that he was playing regularly for England. Going to the World Cup in the summer of 1990 at the age of 23 Gascoigne has just hit double figures for his country. He was mature enough in a football sense to take a match by the scruff of the neck on a consistent basis, but only just.
Contrast this with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who after only 8 U21 caps was give his full England Debut still aged 18 in a competitive qualifier. He had played 2 further times, the 3rd cap starting the European Championships against France still 2 months short of his 19th birthday. Only Rooney has been capped by England at a younger age. Ox now has 12 full caps and is still 19 and is being compared to Gazza by Ray Parlour.
I can see the likeness and I too feel my pulse racing at the idea that Alex could reach the level, in a footballing sense that Gasciogne did. But and this is a huge but, we as fans, the media and the England coaching staff need to look to Arsene Wenger who I feel has mentored Ox sensibly. Wenger is being cautious, utilising Ox sparingly, often as a game changer and to his credit the lad seems to show huge maturity and be happy to progress at the pace his manager decides. Wenger can’t truly control what Roy Hodgson decides but he can determine Ox’s learning curve and impact at Arsenal.
I guess the comparisons made caused me to look back at Gazza and to remember that in 1990 he was not a true youngster but a 23 year old who has played 5 seasons of top flight and had in that time has played 158, yes 158 times for Newcastle and Spurs. When Ox was taken to his first major championships in the summer of 2012 had had played in just 26 top flight games for Arsenal and now with a huge 69 games for Arsenal, the majority as a substitute he is suddenly England’s main hope?
In truth Alex should be with Stuart Peace’s U21s this week but he is not. (Follow the Euro Live Football online) In England 2013 it is, and has been for some years all about the NOW. As I say we cannot control whether our players are selected for England too early and how much expectation is thrust upon them. We can however remember that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is not yet 20 years old and that Paul Gasciogne did not become the player we all remember from Italia 90- and the FA Cup run of 1991 until he was 23/24. The expectations and perceptions in the Premier League era many have changed. The pressure on successive England Coaches as time elapses since 1966 augments but the reality that a player, in most cases will not peak until 23/24 or beyond has not.
We as Arsenal fans should appreciate the comparison with Gascoigne and lick our lips with anticipation of what Ox could become for Arsenal and for his country. However we should be patient and allow Wenger to mould him and introduce him increasingly so when he is 23 he too can impact matches, cup runs and campaigns in the way Gazza did at that age.
I genuinely believe we have an absolute gem on our hands who will have an impact on the game at the highest level. I thought this when he was 15 and I still feel the same way. I just hope the lad himself recognises that his great future is still in the future and not necessarily now. Look at Theo as your inspiration young Ox.
In the season when he turned 20, which for Ox is the forthcoming one, Walcott only played in 30 of Arsenal’s 55 matches and started only 15. In that 2009/10 season Theo scored 4 and assisted. Just three years later, in the season just gone, aged 23 he scored 21 and assisted for 14.
It is all there for you Ox. You could be the first England midfielder in the Gazza mould to truly make a breakthrough and be given licence to play that role. Be patient though as we the fans must be because your time to really shine is surely in 2 to 3 years.
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