Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain could be the key to unlocking new dimension for Liverpool
His return to form could not have been better timed
Liverpool cruised to a 4-1 victory over Genk in the Champions League on Wednesday night, in no small part thanks to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who marked his return to European football with a brace, reminding us all what we missed during his lengthy spell on the sidelines. The midfielder broke the deadlock after just two minutes, with a shot from distance that nestled into the corner. Not long into the second half, he bagged Liverpool's second, guiding the ball in off the bar with an instinctive finish off the outside of his boot.
After the match, Liverpool fans' new chant for the midfielder bellowed around Belgian buses, as they sang his praises to the tune of You To Me Are Everything. And they had good reason to be buoyant. Oxlade-Chamberlain, who played such a key role in the Reds' run to the 2018 Champions League final before suffering a knee injury in the semi-final that would keep him out for a year, is back. And Liverpool are already seeing the benefits.
He is a player often criticised for being wasteful in the final third - he has all the ingredients of an elite athlete, but has not always channelled them in the most productive way. But that is the Ox of old. This is Ox mk.2. The same Ox we saw lash the ball past Ederson in 2018 with the unrelenting power of Adriano from Pro Evolution Soccer 5.
His return to form will come as a huge relief to Liverpool fans, after recent performances highlighted a lack of creativity from the central midfield area. It would be an exaggeration to suggest there is a large cause for concern at Anfield at the moment; they sit top of the Premier League, six points of reigning champions Manchester City. But with such pressure on them to claim secure first ever Premier League title, any sign of weakness becomes the subject of online debate, so deep is the fear of letting a lead *ahem* slip yet again.
Klopp's heavy metal football relies more on energy through the middle, while creativity comes from the full-backs and Roberto Firmino. And while Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum are not exactly asked to replicate the link-up play of Xavi and Iniesta, there is a growing sense that their central midfielders should pose more of a threat from midfield to ease the burden on Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson when attempting to break down a resilient defence.
It's in this sort of situation - 75 minutes on the clock, locked in a stalemate, Man City breathing down their neck - when Oxlade-Chamberlain will come in handy this season. It's unlikely that he will dislodge club captain Jordan Henderson from the starting XI, his unique skillset will make him an invaluable weapon from the bench.
His direct approach, explosive pace, intricate dribbling and ability to link up with the front line will provide Liverpool with a different dynamic that could prove the difference between first and second this season.
Gareth Southgate will too be pleased by Ox's return to form, as he continues his search for the final piece of his midfield jigsaw. Having experimented with almost every vaguely creative English midfielder on the left of his midfield trio, Ross Barkley looks the most likely to take it, but more through default than merit.
If Oxlade-Chamberlain continues to impress as he did in Belgium on Wednesday, he will cause both Southgate and Klopp a well timed selection headache.