With the England midfielder, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez all entering the final year of their contracts, Arsenal could not afford risking losing all of them for free next summer.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's move across London to Chelsea an indication of Arsenal's decline
History repeats itself at Arsenal. Sometimes the sense of repetition brings ever more extreme responses. At others, it dulls the reactions. When Ashley Cole crossed the Thames to join Chelsea in 2006, it was a shock. As Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is poised to make the same short journey, it feels altogether less surprising.
In a similar way, it was controversial when Chelsea allowed Nemanja Matic to cross a great divide by joining Manchester United. It is altogether less so when Oxlade-Chamberlain heads for Stamford Bridge. It is an indication of Arsenal’s decline in stature over the past 11 years. It is also pertinent that while Cole was the favourite who provoked vitriolic anger, Oxlade-Chamberlain’s impending departure has brought more mixed reactions.
There has been an element of understanding within sections of the Arsenal fanbase, the recognition that an ambitious player can win more in blue than red and that a footballer brimming with potential is likelier to improve under the detail-orientated, demanding Antonio Conte.
The Chelsea manager’s only regret may be that the deal was not done sooner. Oxlade-Chamberlain has helped cost his new club two trophies in his past four games, following an outstanding performance in the FA Cup final and a successful penalty in the Community Shield shoot-out. Chelsea began the season short-staffed; their third summer transfer was concluded on July 21, but they have left it until the window’s final week to belatedly strengthen further.
But strengthen they have. If Danny Drinkwater, a mooted arrival, seems like a squad player, Oxlade-Chamberlain ought to be a first choice. Victor Moses was a revelation last season but there was the sense of a footballer playing above his natural level. No one overachieves forever and it is astute management to secure an upgrade before the downturn that tends to follow such an upswing in fortunes begins.
Indeed, Oxlade-Chamberlain has the ability, both footballing and physical, to become the best wing-back in the league. He should displace Moses on the right. His prowess out of position on the left, to which Chelsea can testify after the FA Cup final, gives them an alternative to Marcos Alonso without requiring to break the bank for Danny Rose.
Yet all of that is contingent on Oxlade-Chamberlain amending his image of himself. Like James Milner, he has long seen himself as a central midfielder. Managers have viewed his versatility as a boon. The player himself, while selflessly occupying a range of roles, has appeared less convinced.
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But he has the look of a back-up in the centre of the pitch. It is hard to shake off the impression that Conte, who prospered with a double pivot at the heart of the midfield, sees N’Golo Kante and Tiemoue Bakayoko as his preferred pair. Oxlade-Chamberlain would offer a more energetic option to Cesc Fabregas, perhaps enabling Chelsea to cope better in the stiffer tests when they are without one of their premier ball-winners.
Arsenal, meanwhile, have to recover without one of the men who made their 3-4-2-1 system work. Wenger faces a question if he reverts to a back four. Above and beyond the tactical implications, however, is the idea of a plan going awry.
Wenger had long planned to build around a group of young Brits. Now Carl Jenkinson is out on loan, Kieran Gibbs could be sold, Jack Wilshere might be and Theo Walcott is on the bench. Only Oxlade-Chamberlain seemed to be flowering.
Arsenal, ultimately, could not run the risk of allowing him, Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez to all leave on free transfers next summer. Financially, selling him is probably the right thing to do. But the footballing cost is considerable. It is another step in Arsenal’s regression.