Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain meeting expectations on and off the pitch
Liverpool's 4-0 win at Bournemouth was a breakout of sorts for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The former Arsenal man had initially found it difficult to break into Jurgen Klopp's starting line-up in the opening months of the season, but week by week he has looked more comfortable and Sunday's game on the South Coast was his best performance yet.
In some respects, this steady progression is a throwback to the way things used to be at Anfield, when many new signings were not seen by Reds' supporters for 12 months while they learned "the Liverpool way" in the reserves. Of course, that rarely happens with big money signings these days but Oxlade-Chamberlain and fellow new boy Andrew Robertson have been brought along slower than they might have expected. While some new signings are thrust straight into the side, Klopp has patiently waited for the pair to learn his methods before rewarding them with regular playing time.
Despite not playing as much as he would have wanted, "Ox" seems to have really taken to life at Liverpool and his humility and desire to improve is to be applauded in an era when many of his peers are seemingly lacking in those qualities. He frequently talks of how much he has to learn and how he is still trying to adapt to Klopp's style, which is somewhat different to what he was used to at Arsenal.
Much of the difference presumably lies in the team's "off the ball" work, so it's encouraging that Sunday's game was the best example yet of how much he is now getting to grips with it. Winning the ball high up the pitch is a big part of what Liverpool do and against Bournemouth, Oxlade-Chamberlain excelled in that area.
Ball recoveries in the final third this weekend:— Andrew Beasley (@BassTunedToRed) December 18, 2017
5 - Chelsea, Spurs, United
4 - Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Man City
3 - Arsenal
All that was missing was a goal, although he came mightily close after winning the ball with a crunching challenge, surging into the penalty area and hitting a powerful shot against the outside of the post. Such aggression and purpose demonstrates how he's embracing what is required to play for Klopp; it bodes well for the rest of the season.
Yet it wasn't just his on-pitch performance that pleased supporters on Sunday. The way he stepped in to defend teammate Philippe Coutinho in a post match interview with Sky Sports earned him just as many positive reviews. It will have been equally appreciated by Coutinho, Klopp and everybody else in the Liverpool dressing room.
The Brazil international had been put on the spot about his future and was visibly uncomfortable, struggling with his answer when Oxlade-Chamberlain interrupted, put an arm around his teammate and expertly diffused the situation.
"He's a Liverpool player right now and he's doing really well for us. He's been the most professional person I've seen all season. He's been top quality from the start and every time he gets on the pitch he does his all for the club and that's the most important thing right now.
"It's not fair to ask those kind of questions, I don't think. He gives his all every game and that's all we can ask from him."
It was well-put but it shouldn't have been necessary.
Coutinho is happy at Liverpool but he would be happier at Barcelona. That's no secret. A move to La Liga will most likely happen sooner or later but only if the Catalan giants match Liverpool's valuation. That is something Coutinho has no control over, yet he seems to be asked about it any time he is interviewed by anyone other than Liverpool's own official website. The answer is always the same because there really is not much he can say.
Interviewers have a job to do, naturally, and some would argue that the question was relevant because supporters want to know Coutinho's future plans. But that doesn't wash; the question was not for the benefit of any watching Liverpool fans (most of whom were far from happy about it) but was all about trying to get the "big scoop."
Clearly, the fans would love nothing more than to hear Coutinho declare that he plans to stay at Anfield forever but that is not going to happen and even if it did, it would be not be in a post-match TV interview. The media would be equally as happy if Coutinho were to state his intention to join Barca, but the "exclusive" that the interviewer was desperately fishing for was never going to come. Therefore, asking that question was a waste of everybody's time. Here's a novel idea: why not ask him something interesting that he can actually answer?
Liverpool supporters understand and respect Coutinho's position even though they do not want to lose such a wonderful player. As long as he continues to give his all while he's wearing the red shirt, then if and when he leaves he will do so with the best wishes of the fans. So far he has done that and his popularity on the Kop remains strong as a result.
Sunday's line of questioning didn't provide any clarity as to Coutinho's future, but it will probably make Liverpool think twice about making him available to the media in the future.
Dave Usher is one of ESPN FC's Liverpool bloggers. Follow him on Twitter: @theliverpoolway.