Back in November, when Gareth Southgate picked his England side for the winter friendlies against Brazil and Germany, there was no place in it for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
Southgate himself admitted that in the new system, with the focus on wingbacks and a more technical midfield, there would be no space for the Englishman.
The ex-Arsenal player lacked match fitness and was being outperformed in every department. As things stood, Kieran Trippier and Kyle Walker were ahead of him in the wing back position, while Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli were both ahead in the central midfield area.
At the time, Chamberlain was devastated. But five months on, he forced his way back into the starting lineup.
After a move away from the Emirates, the 24-year-old flourished under the tutelage of Jurgen Klopp, so much so that Southgate picked him to play in the summer friendlies against Italy and Holland.
Oxlade-Chamberlain thrived as a part of the 3-5-2/3-4-3 systems that Southgate had come to prefer, showing off his pace and dynamism in the centre of the pitch and looking to be a prime candidate for the position for Russia.
And then, disaster struck.
Oxlade-Chamberlain injured his cruciate ligament during Liverpool’s Champions League semifinal first-leg game against Roma. He was subsequently ruled out for the rest of the season and, by extension, this summer’s World Cup.
Whilst Southgate has had time to process this setback, we are now on the home stretch to the 2018 World Cup. The question is: will Oxlade-Chamberlain’s absence pose problems for England come June 14th?
What does he provide?
Under Jurgen Klopp, Oxlade-Chamberlain has become the player Arsenal fans desperately wanted him to be during his seven-year tenure under Arsene Wenger.
Gone are the days of his feeble passing and sub-par dribbling skills. He is now known for his dynamic bursts through the midfield and having the vision to execute long-range passes to put players like Roberto Firmino in behind the opposition’s defence.
UEFA/Pool via REUTERS
Yet, he is capable of more than just that. His two goals against Manchester City this season in both the Premier League and the Champions League, show that he can also get amongst the scoring- something he was struggling to do at Arsenal.
This did not slip under Southgate’s radar. Quite the opposite. Just five months after being snubbed, he was back in the England squad, this time in his preferred position in the centre of midfield.
How will England cope without him?
Oxlade-Chamberlain’s injury poses a problem for Southgate.
When he was in the side, Oxlade-Chamberlain provided dynamism, the ability to carry the ball up the pitch and possessed the intelligence to execute long-range passes to find others further up the field.
For instance, Oxlade-Chamberlain completed more take-ons (34) than Jesse Lingard (28) -though less than Ruben Loftus Cheek (74)- whilst creating more chances (29) and assisting more goals (7).
In his absence, this responsibility is now passed onto Lingard and Loftus-Cheek.
While both can play as number eights, Lingard has spent most of the season impressing in a more advanced role or out wide, whilst Loftus-Cheek has spent much of his playing time with Crystal Palace on the left flank, making only one appearance as a central midfielder, one as a defensive midfield and four in a more attacking position.
Loftus-Cheek is perhaps the most similar to Oxlade-Chamberlain, but with Lingard most likely to start instead, the sort of ball-carrying prowess that the Liverpool player offers might be lost somewhat.
With teams like Panama and Tunisia in their group who will look to sit deep, this might not present England with any immediate problems.
However, against Belgium and with the potential to play one of Poland, Senegal or Colombia in the Round of 16, Gareth Southgate will want to know where the impetus for his counter-attacking football will come from.
Of course, this should not imply that the inclusion of Oxlade-Chamberlain would have solved all of these problems.
But, with a midfield that is already short on creative quality, questions might be asked about who will make the difference in his absence.
Can one man make such a difference?
It seems foolish that one man’s absence could cause so many potential problems, but Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s absence will hurt England more than they can imagine.
Whilst he’s not yet a world-beater, he boasts a fairly unique skillset when it comes to England’s current personnel, with few players in the squad possessing his combination of strength, speed, power and skill, all of which are vital components of a ball-progressing central midfielder.
Unless the remaining midfielders compensate for his loss, then England risk another early exit from an international tournament.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss the ins and outs of Group B from the World Cup in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.
Want to share your opinion? Why not Write For Us?