Where does an injured Ox leave England?
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has been ruled out for the rest of the season, and indeed the World Cup summer, with injury. Regardless of who you support or how you rate the player, it's impossible to feel anything but devastated on behalf of the former Arsenal man.
Following a settling in period after joining Liverpool in the summer, the Ox has flourished under Klopp's guidance in recent weeks. His titanic performances in both legs of the Champion's League quarter final particularly stand out. This is especially the case due to the area of the pitch in which the 24-year old was so impressive; against the undeniably brilliant Manchester City, Oxlade-Chamberlain was majestic having been finally entrusted with the central midfield berth he has craved for years.
Watching him operate in such effective partnership with Jordan Henderson, it was easy to feel comfortable with them as the prospective midfield duo for England in Russia.
This is a particularly troublesome area for the national team. Oxlade-Chamberlain's setback has just made Gareth Southgate's job even harder. Given the England manager's decision to line up with three central defenders, the onus upon the central midfielders to deliver in all thirds of the pitch is heightened. This comes as a consequence of a more advanced player having been sacrificed to allow a bulkier back line.
Having long wished to make a central midfield role his own, the Ox was really starting to look the part. His ball-carrying ability is one which few of his compatriots share. Against the deeper lying defences we're likely to encounter in Panama and Tunisia, having a player who can break between the lines with the ball at his feet is vital. Kyle Walker and John Stones may be comfortable enough on the ball to step into the midfield, but neither of them offset this now glaring deficiency in the squad.
Adam Lallana and Jack Wilshere, the Ox's current and former club mates respectively, are the only other natural ball carriers amongst the established England internationals. There’s no reason think they can step straight in though. Lallana is a serious fitness doubt for the tournament. Even if he is fit in time, he’s missed so much club football this season he can't be reasonably expected to be anything other than can very rusty come Russia-time.
Wilshere, on the other hand, has finally proved his long-term fitness this season, and ironically, it looks to have fatigued him. In recent outings for Arsenal he has looked a distance from his best. Can a man playing his first full season in so long really be expected to continue that into a summer competition? Even if he can, let's face it, Wilshere's recent international tournament exploits have hardly covered him in glory (we all remember Iceland - though perhaps it's unfair to single him out there).
So, will Southgate pull someone like Dele Alli or Jesse Lingard deeper into the middle? That, of course, would risk blunting the attack and creating a lack of defensive focus and discipline in the midfield. Or is Jordan Henderson going to be tasked with playing more expansively and adventurously alongside someone like Eric Dier? Whilst I do believe Henderson’s creative capabilities are somewhat underrated, he’s not the first person I’d like to turn to when needing to unlock a tricky defence.
This need to inject some inventiveness, and the aforementioned dearth of ball-carriers, could even see Southgate roll the dice on the undeniably talented but erratic Jonjo Shelvey. Against a certain kind of opposition, the Newcastle man’s qualities would hold some value for England. Should we make the latter stages though, against a higher quality opponent I can only see Shelvey being rendered ineffective and a burden on the team. England aren’t a side who can afford to carry anyone.
In any case, England are close to being wafer thin in the central midfield department. Surely, we won't end up with something as uninspiring as the selection of Jake Livermore?
Time will tell, but Gareth Southgate's midfield headache just became a migraine.