Bale, Walcott, Lallana, Shaw: long is the list of players who have been swept up by the Solent’s brisk southwesterly, floating effortlessly on the breeze into the realm of domestic and international stardom. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is no exception; at just 21, the Arsenal midfielder has already raced his way to FA Cup glory and a World Cup finals. And for now at least, he’s travelling too fast to look back.
Photography by Neil Bedford
I wanted to start by asking you about Southampton: How much of your success can you attribute to them, and how much of it is down to the work that you’ve put in yourself over the years?
Well, obviously they had a massive part to play in where I am today. I was there from the age of seven until 17, and they gave me the opportunity to play in the first team at the end of all of that, which is really what put me on the stage and the pedestal to go on and do what I’ve done today. After I made the move to Arsenal, it was all down to me then, and nothing to do with Southampton in terms of how I pushed on and developed at that level; that was something I was learning and hadn’t been a part of at all, playing at that level with those sorts of players, so that was very much down to me learning, and the guys at Arsenal – Arsène Wenger and my team-mates – helping me to develop from that point of view. But Southampton definitely gave me the foundations, that early coaching which is sometimes the most important to be able to go on and achieve.
And as a youngster at Southampton, how aware were you at the time of the transformation that was going on within the club? Obviously you were only seven when you first started, but, as you progressed, did you get a sense of the legacy that they were trying to build?
I think that, at that age, you don’t really think about it too much, and you’re not really aware of what the best formula is to develop players. As a seven, eight-year-old, right through to 16, you are a bit unaware. When I got to about 12, obviously I became aware of Theo [Walcott] and Gareth [Bale], who were emerging out of the academy, and I think once Theo made the move, and Gareth as well, that’s when the club started to get a name. Obviously they’d had a lot of players before that who were very good – the Dexter Blackstocks, the Jason Puncheons, the David McGoldricks, the Nathan Dyers of the world, who were always about – but I think it was only when those two went to Premier League clubs, big clubs, that Southampton started to get spoken about. Four or five years later, I was the next one after them, and then Luke Shaw, James Ward-Prowse – who is in the first team now – and Calum Chambers followed shortly after me. So I think that’s where it’s widely praised, but as a youngster I didn’t really know too much about what they were doing; I just knew that I enjoyed playing for them and enjoyed being at the club.
Is it any surprise to you that Southampton are where they are in the table, and that they’re doing as well as they are, when you think about the work that’s gone in down there?
I think I’d have to say that it is a surprise, but it’s a nice one; it’s nice to see them doing so well because of the philosophy they have down there and the ethos they have. They always give young players a go and [those players] have had a vital part to play in their success today. And I think it’s a surprise because of the players they lost at the end of last year – they’ve recovered from losing some big players at the club and they’ve filled those gaps in well. But it’s a very grounded club, with great backroom staff, support and fans, and it’s a nice place to be around so anyone that does come in can settle in quite easily and buy into the club. It’s a really nice club to play for and one that strives to be successful, so I’m not surprised, in that sense, that those boys have performed well.
Obviously, in the Premier League, people always talk about the Big Four, and they’ve been up there for a while, so to see them in and amongst it is really nice. I just hope they don’t finish above us [laughing].
Do you think they’ve got it in them to keep going and stay up there?
Well, they’ve shown so far that they can definitely compete at that level – we’ve lost away to them this year, and they’ve beaten some big teams, and in those [matches] that they’ve lost to the big teams, they deserved to win. I can remember them playing Man. United at home [on 8th December, 2014], and they lost 2-1 on the day but they deserved to win. Then, obviously, they went up and beat them at Old Trafford recently, so they’re definitely showing that they have what it takes to beat these teams, but it’s about keeping that up consistently right until the end of the season. So it’s hard to say what’s going to happen.
What differences did you notice as a young player coming from Southampton to Arsenal? Was there anything that was radically different in terms of the way they were training, their preparation or mentality?
When I first moved, there was definitely a step up in quality. I was playing with some really good players at Southampton, and some really good professionals, not just for League One but boys that could definitely have coped at a higher level, and who have gone on to prove that they can cope: Jose Fonte, Rickie Lambert, Adam Lallana, Dean Hammond, Jason Puncheon. Players like this have obviously gone on to prove that they are Premiership quality, so I was playing with quality players at that time but they hadn’t yet made that step up. I’m sure now, though, they’d say that they’ve really improved their game and pushed on to become better players.
That initial move, as a 17-year-old, to come into a Premier League environment – and at a club like Arsenal, with the players that were there at the time, and are still there now – was definitely a shock to the system. The tempo of playing in the Premier League was massively different, and the physicality was the thing that surprised me the most. Sometimes, in League One, you can be quick and be quicker than most people, but you come to the Premiership and most people are quick; and if they’re not quick, then they’re not that slow either!
How did you go about making that step up from a mental point of view?
The main thing is that you’ve got to have belief in yourself; I really do think that it’s the key to success. You’ve got to have faith in your own ability and believe you’re good enough to mix with those guys, because they won’t believe it to start off with – they’ve never seen you at that level. So it’s up to you to show them and believe in yourself, first and foremost, and then in return I think that helps you to go out there and perform at the right level.
Beyond that, it’s important that you don’t quietly set your expectations too high, because that can lead to disappointment at the same time, and understand that you might not quite be at that level. You’ve got a lot to learn, especially if you’re 17 or a young lad coming into it, and I think it’s important to understand that you’re going to get told it’s not good enough a lot of the time. It’s about taking that in the right way and not getting too upset about it.
Who has helped, and continues to help, you in that regard?
My dad played a big role in that. The manager obviously understood the situation I was in – he’d seen it with Theo, after all – and had brought in a lot of players over the years who had stepped up a level to play at Arsenal. For him to show that belief in you and keep reminding you that he has faith in you is a massive confidence boost. At the same time, though, he lets you make mistakes and doesn’t come down on you too hard, lets you learn and just lets time take its course. That’s definitely been one of the most helpful things for me.
Do you feel like the mental side of the game is what separates the great from the merely good players?
Yeah, absolutely. It’s hard to say, sometimes, when you see somebody have a great season, to look back and say that they are a much better player than the year before. Magic things don’t happen overnight; you don’t suddenly become much quicker, or all of a sudden have the ability to shoot much more accurately. It’s all to do with confidence and belief. With games and success, that grows, and I think a lot of it is mental. Sometimes you can’t put your finger on why things go well, but confidence is massive. It’s not like you’re being overly confident, it’s just having that quiet confidence and remaining humble.
You always seem fairly grounded and humble when you’re working with the media; is it something that you like doing, and do you feel that it’s a duty that you have?
Obviously it’s all part and parcel of our position and role; being at a club like Arsenal and playing for England, there’s always that responsibility to talk to the media.
“It’s good to humanise yourself and those around you, because we are just normal guys.”
It’s an opportunity to get yourself across and connect with the fans and people, particularly the young kids, that maybe look up to you. I think media’s become such a big thing now, whether it’s social media or just day-to-day around the game; I remember when I was younger, if I could listen to Thierry Henry or Theo, when he first went to Arsenal, then I would. I’d always tune in and listen to how he’s going about his life and how I can follow that to get to where he got to. So I think it’s important and it’s part of our role as professionals to do our bit for the media, but at the same time it’s about balancing it to know when enough is enough, and how much is too much.
Do you think it’s important to humanise players in that sense? To show people that, at the end of the day, you are just a normal person?
Yeah, absolutely. Like I say, it’s about connecting with the fans; at the end of the day we all enjoy doing the same things that they like to do – whether it’s Fifa, chilling with mates, going to the cinema, doing stupid stuff that you don’t expect someone who plays for Arsenal or England to do – but really we’re just normal guys. It’s just that we do a job that is a lot more in the spotlight, and that lots of people admire and appreciate. But I definitely think it’s good to humanise yourself and those around you, because we are just normal guys.
As we get towards the end of your fourth season at Arsenal, how proud are you of what you’ve achieved since you made the step up from Southampton?
I think when you’re living it, day in, day out, you don’t really look back on what you’ve achieved so much – I think that’s something you do more at the end of your career – but when people ask me, ‘Are you proud of what you’ve done?’ and I take a moment to think about what I’ve achieved, I always say, ‘Well, I am still only 21.’ I am proud of what I’ve achieved; with moving to Arsenal there’s always that uncertainty. You know, you see people move to big clubs and sometimes it doesn’t work out – it’s too big a jump for them – so looking back it could have gone a lot worse than it has, but at the same time I’ve got a lot more that I need and want to achieve, so I don’t get too caught up in looking back just yet. I’m just focused on looking forward.
Looking forward, then – obvious things like Premiership and Champions League titles aside – what is it that you want to achieve on a personal level?
I just want to keep playing as many games as I can and get to a place physically where I’m at my peak and can stay fit and healthy to do what I do best, which is running past people [laughing]. I just want to keep improving on that aspect, a bit like Gareth. I look at him and see how he’s grown as a man into the machine that he is today – the same with Ronaldo. Physically, now, they’re right at the top of the game, and some people really struggle to keep up with them. But for me, I just want to keep improving, keep playing games for my club and country, and scoring more goals – hopefully that’ll come, because goals and assists are my bread and butter.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain wears the Nike Revolution Jacket and Hypervenom, available from nike.com