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Oxlade-Chamberlain Chelsea rejection shows his desire to star in midfield

Watford midfielder Nathaniel Chalobah insists it was the right decision to leave Chelsea.

Almost exactly 11 years have passed since Arsenal sold Ashley Cole to Chelsea. It was a tortuously long and publicly acrimonious process, more than 18 months from beginning to end and punctuated by an infamous hotel meeting, a Football Association investigation and an explosive autobiography.

Cole was officially announced as a Chelsea player in the early hours of Sept. 1, 2006, an hour and a half after the transfer window had closed.

The fact that new Liverpool signing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's aborted £35 million move from north to west London this week was nowhere near as controversial to begin with speaks volumes -- not just of what Arsenal have become as a club, but also of where he finds himself as a player.

Arsene Wenger was, by his own public comments, desperate to keep Oxlade-Chamberlain. But that desire arose from a sense of what the 24-year-old might yet go on to achieve (not to mention the fear of him achieving it with a rival), rather than anything he has actually done in a six year-spell at Arsenal defined by injuries, inconsistency and inhibited development.

There is something uniquely intriguing about untapped potential. At 24, you still see tantalising flashes of the pace, power and skill that led Robin van Persie to compare Oxlade-Chamberlain, at 18, to Wayne Rooney. Capped 27 times by England, he has never started more than 17 Premier League matches in a season. And he still doesn't have a clearly defined position.

This is why Chelsea have harboured an interest in him for several years, and moved with speed and determination the moment they were given the slightest encouragement that he was available this week.

Talent can drift without direction, and several players in the current Chelsea squad -- not least Victor Moses, transformed from a nomadic Premier League winger into a swashbuckling wing-back last season -- can testify that Antonio Conte is better equipped than most coaches for the task.

In turning down the champions because of a yearning to establish himself in central midfield, Oxlade-Chamberlain has chosen another path; one that is attractive because of the player he thinks and hopes he can be, not necessarily the player his career and skillset would be best served by becoming.

There is much to respect about Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's desire to shine in central midfield rather than let his skill set dictate his position.

The teenage Oxlade-Chamberlain came to prominence at Southampton as a dynamic central midfielder tearing through League One, and that is the position he has always favoured. His disillusionment at Arsenal sprang as much from his ever-shifting roles on the pitch under Wenger as from the jarring fluctuations in his playing time.

Yet if Oxlade-Chamberlain really is a top-class central midfielder at heart, why isn't he one at Arsenal? Here is a list of the players Wenger has, at one time or another, picked ahead of him in the middle of the pitch since 2011: Mikel Arteta, Yossi Benayoun, Aaron Ramsey, Tomas Rosicky, Alex Song, Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla, Mathieu Flamini, Mesut Ozil, Francis Coquelin, Mohamed Elneny, Alex Iwobi and Granit Xhaka.

Since switching to a three-man defence in the final weeks of last season Wenger has instead taken to deploying Oxlade-Chamberlain at wing-back, where his speed and stamina appears a good fit. It is also Chelsea's area of greatest need as Conte aims to secure the squad reinforcements to contend on multiple fronts.

Oxlade-Chamberlain would have been given the chance to battle with Moses for a starting spot in a team that won the Premier League by seven points last season, as well as prove he could leave behind the tactical and mental sloppiness too often indulged at Arsenal and be part of an elite winning culture.

While clearly not the role Oxlade-Chamberlain always imagined as his destiny, wing-back has rapidly transformed from an unfashionable position to a vital one in the modern Premier League. In Conte's 3-4-3, which transforms into a 3-2-5 when Chelsea have the ball, it can be pretty fun, too.

"You know very well that, for me, the wing-backs are the real wingers, and sometimes they must become strikers," Conte said after Marcos Alonso scored twice to stun Tottenham at Wembley earlier this month. No nominal "defender" in the Premier League has found the net more times than the Spaniard (eight) since the beginning of last season.

Oxlade-Chamberlain's choice is his own, and there is plenty to admire in his refusal to give up on his dream.

Liverpool reportedly see him playing centrally. Yet once he gets to Anfield, Emre Can, Adam Lallana, Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum and James Milner are all more established. There is also the small matter of Naby Keita's £48m arrival in 12 months' time from RB Leipzig.

Chelsea, meanwhile, must now scramble for other targets in the final hours of this transfer window. When the deadline passes and the dust settles, some at Stamford Bridge may reflect on what might have been had Oxlade-Chamberlain made a different decision. Only time will tell if he is left wondering the same.

Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.

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