Liverpool face midfield dilemma after Oxlade-Chamberlain injury
Liverpool's stunning 5-2 win over Roma in the first leg of their Champions League semifinal on Tuesday came at a heavy cost. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's unfortunate injury has ruled him out of the rest of Liverpool's season and has also cost him a place at this summer's World Cup.
The former Arsenal man had made himself a key player in Jurgen Klopp's team since the turn of the year and his absence will be keenly felt by club and country. It's the cruelest of blows for a young man who took the brave step to leave the comfortable surroundings of Arsenal and try to force his way into a Liverpool side in which there appeared to be no obvious role for him.
Oxlade-Chamberlain arrived at Anfield as something of a "jack of all trades, master of none" player. At Arsenal he would fill in on either wing, occasionally do a job in midfield and sometimes even play wing-back if needed. He wanted to play in central midfield and that's the role Klopp saw him in too, even if very few others did. The doubters -- and there were justifiably lots of them -- have largely been won over in recent weeks and months.
Such was his determination to improve as a player and work under Klopp, the 24-year-old turned down more money to stay at Arsenal and also rejected the chance to join Champions Chelsea in favour of making the move up north. There were some early teething problems and his first start for the club was a chastening experience as he struggled to put a foot right in a 2-1 Carabao Cup loss at Leicester City in September. It was always going to take time to adapt to a completely new style of football though, and Liverpool's play without the ball is perhaps the trickiest thing for new signings to adapt to.
Slowly but surely, his form improved and when Klopp took the decision to allow Philippe Coutinho to join Barcelona in January, the confidence he had in Oxlade-Chamberlain was one of the main factors behind it. The faith Klopp showed in the man affectionately known as "Ox" proved to be justified as a string of impressive performances followed, with the starring role he played in two Anfield victories over Manchester City a particular highlight.
Oxlade-Chamberlain was in the form of his life going into the Roma game and even the way he was injured demonstrated the growth we've seen from him as a player this season. The desire to get back and tackle is something that is instilled in all of Klopp's players; it was that desire that saw Oxlade-Chamberlain thunder in to win a challenge against Aleksandar Kolarov but damage his knee in the process.
Thankfully for Liverpool, he wasn't actually missed against Roma because his replacement, Georginio Wijnaldum, produced a fantastic display. In the weeks ahead though, Oxlade-Chamberlain's pace, power and drive from midfield is going to be a big loss.
Wijnaldum is a fine player in his own right but he is different to Oxlade-Chamberlain and is certainly not explosive. Nevertheless, the Reds should be able to get by with Wijnaldum alongside the experienced duo of James Milner and Jordan Henderson. With Adam Lallana still not ready for a return and Emre Can also sidelined indefinitely, Klopp is now down to his last three senior midfielders. That may not be a problem if they can stay fit but as things stand, Liverpool are one more injury away from possibly having to play teenager Ben Woodburn in the midfield three.
The only other alternative would be to perhaps move Trent Alexander-Arnold into midfield. He has all the tools necessary to be a big hit in that role but having spent the past couple of years playing right-back, it would be asking a lot to expect him to immediately slot into Liverpool's well-oiled "pressing machine."
Woodburn, at least, has been training as a midfielder and playing there at the junior levels. He may well be needed in Liverpool's remaining Premier League games if Klopp feels he needs to wrap any of his remaining three midfield men in cotton wool. Talented 17-year-old Curtis Jones might also come into contention.
It's a shame that Marko Grujic is on loan at Cardiff City, as he would have been an invaluable player to have at this point in the season. The Reds could also have done with Harry Wilson being around to give Mohamed Salah or Sadio Mane a breather every now again.
The Welsh winger is tearing it up at Hull and has scored seven goals in nine games for the Championship strugglers. He's also won four penalty kicks. Both would really help Liverpool in this time of need but this is the risk you take when you loan players out. It's difficult striking the balance between maintaining squad depth and allowing young players to gain much needed experience at senior level.
Grujic and Wilson will undoubtedly benefit from their time away from Anfield but that is not helping Liverpool right now. It's easy to say that Klopp should have kept them around in case they were needed, but who could have predicted that Oxlade-Chamberlain, Can and Lallana would all suffer long-term injuries? It's true that most could have predicted Lallana would, but losing three midfielders in such a short space of time is desperately unlucky.
It does leave Klopp in something of a bind though, particularly as Liverpool still need to secure a top four position before they can even think about fielding weakened teams.
The squad is creaking right now, but Liverpool's first XI is flying. The finish line is in sight. Klopp just needs to keep everything crossed that nobody else falls before they cross it.
Dave Usher is one of ESPN FC's Liverpool bloggers. Follow him on Twitter: @theliverpoolway.