Liverpool had hopes of keeping influential playmaker Philippe Coutinho on Merseyside until the summer, but the club was ultimately forced to sell its star player early in January once Barcelona came calling. Coutinho’s desire to play in Spain combined with the monstrous transfer fee of £142 million ultimately proved to be too much for Liverpool to ignore.
With Coutinho out of the fold, many wondered whether Jurgen Klopp and the club’s brass would attempt to bring in a replacement. Liverpool kicked the tires on Schalke’s Leon Goretzka, but it sounds as though the 22-year-old German will instead sign a deal with Bayern Munich. The Reds also reportedly attempted to get Leipzig to let Naby Keita come to England 6 months early, but the German side was asking for too much money.
There is still time in the January window for LFC to find another midfielder, but might Coutinho’s long-term replacement already be in the squad? Some expected Adam Lallana, who has battled injuries this season, to step in and fill the Brazilian’s role in the interim. However, when it came time to select the squad ahead of Sunday’s huge Premier League clash with Manchester City, Klopp left Lallana on the bench. Instead, former Arsenal starlet Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain got the call.
That turned out to be a wonderful decision, as Oxlade-Chamberlain went out and led a rousing 4-3 victory over the league leaders at Anfield. Ox bagged the first goal of the game – a beautiful long-range effort that beat Ederson at the far post – and his fingerprints were all over Liverpool’s stunning triumph.
We saw signs of Oxlade-Chamberlain’s immense potential during his days under Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, but he struggled to earn consistent playing time at his preferred position. Ox has said himself that he prefers to play in an attacking midfield role, but far too often during his time at the Emirates did Wenger opt to play him out of position. When he was still with the Gunners earlier this season, Oxlade-Chamberlain was often deployed as a wing-back.
While the player himself has said that he’s willing to play any position in an attempt to help the team, there was no hiding the fact that he wanted to play in the middle of the field. Klopp’s system is designed in such a way that his midfielders are essentially constantly shuffling between a variety of different places on the pitch.
Oxlade-Chamberlain started against City playing just behind the front-three of Roberto Firmino, Mo Salah and Sadio Mane, but there were several instances during the match of Ox getting forward and pushing the attack. For one day at least, Coutinho’s absence was easily forgotten.
Using narratives in order to sway your bets is certainly not optimal betting strategy. Prior to Sunday, if you had suggested that Liverpool made for a wise bet to beat City based solely on the fact that they’ll be fired up after the loss of Coutinho, most would have said that it’s a poor way to identify betting value. Following the victory, however, it’s clear that Oxlade-Chamberlain and co. were eager to show the rest of the Premier League that they’re fully capable of operating at peak capacity even without the “Little Magician” there pulling the strings.
Of course, it’s silly and short-sighted to act like Liverpool have already plugged that hole. Oxlade-Chamberlain has struggled with consistency at times during his career, so it stands to reason that there will still be more bumps along the road ahead. Keita is scheduled to arrive in the summer, and one would imagine Klopp will use some of the massive funds from the Coutinho sale to add further depth to the midfield.
That said, Sunday’s performance gives Liverpool plenty of reason for optimism regarding their immediate future this season. The Reds blitzed City from the start, and the mad, high-pressing style clearly caught Pep Guardiola’s men off-guard. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s combination of speed, quickness and a high motor makes him an ideal fit for Klopp’s rigorous gegenpressing style. We saw that time and time again against the league leaders.
With Coutinho around, Ox was often forced to play wide on the right wing. While he does have the skills to play the position, we mentioned earlier that he prefers an interior role. Now that Phil is gone, that job is there for the taking, and Oxlade-Chamberlain certainly made the most of his first opportunity to grab it.
On the day he was acquired from Arsenal, Klopp described Ox as “a player that is positive and willing to take risks to try and make positive things happen.” Given Liverpool’s counter-attacking style, that description indicates that the player was worth the risk of bringing him in. He made some mistakes early in his tenure at Anfield, but the glimpse of massive upside we saw against City is exactly what Klopp was hoping he’d get.
Klopp reportedly told his players to defend City “all over the pitch.” Clearly, the strategy worked. Oxlade-Chamberlain’s goal came after winning the ball back in City’s half of the pitch, and the central defenders were too slow to react to Ox’s amazing pace. Within seconds of picking up the loose ball, Ox was celebrating his shot that beat Ederson from outside the 18-yard box.
One positive result does not mean that the loss of Coutinho won’t be felt for the rest of the season, but things certainly couldn’t have gotten off to a more favourable start for Liverpool. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has always had star potential, and here’s hoping the union with Klopp will finally unlock his massive promise. As of now, that’s looking like £35 million well spent for the Reds.