On the opening day of the 2015/16 English Premier League, West Ham United travelled to the Emirates Stadium, the Hammers supporters were not too pragmatic about the fixture given the vast difference in quality between the two squads.
Looking at the match after three years, the Hammers have plenty to shout about, but one of the things that will have seen them shouting loudest was the performance of Reece Oxford. At 16 years and 198 days, he became West Ham’s youngest and Premier League’s second-youngest starter of all time.
The teenager played as holding midfielder and protected the back-four from the potent Arsenal attack. At the end of the match, he had the highest percentage of pass completion on the field at 96%, made three tackles, won three tackles and kept the Gunners quieter than usual, all in all, he was a dominating force in the middle of the park.
The 16 year old almost broke Twitter when the team news was released and he made his Premier League debut, soon after making his European introduction for the east London club against Lusitanos in Europa League 1st qualification round, but that was nothing compared to the response he garnered when he shielded the back four like his life depended on it against world-class attackers.
Soon there were comparisons to Rio Ferdinand, who also came through the youth setup at West Ham before joining Leeds United and can play both as a defender and shield in front of the back four. Reece’s early performances impressed pundits and fans alike, but it was evident that his raw talent needs a lot of polishing. He spent 210 minutes on the pitch that season in the Premier League and also played 11 matches in the Premier League 2 for the Hammers Under-23 side as a centre-back.
He continued to generate praise for his excellent start to his career and was named among the 10 players to watch out for during the 2016/17 Premier League season by pundits. The Daily Telegraph named him among the best prospects in English football.
On his 18th birthday, Oxford signed a new, four and a half-year contract with West Ham. He continued to play for the Hammer Under-23 side that season before he was loaned out to Championship side Reading for the rest of the season. Former West Ham manager Slaven Bilic reckoned the teenager needed first team action for his development. During his loan spell at Reading, he only managed to get 200 minutes on the pitch and his performances didn’t set the world alight.
The following season, Oxford was sent on loan to German club Borussia Monchengladbach for the season.
However, he didn’t make his debut until 28 October when he made a late appearance from the bench in a 1-3 win against Hoffenheim.
On December 12, Oxford made his first Bundesliga start for Gladbach, against Freiburg. After the match, sporting director Max Eberl praised Oxford’s development during his time at the club and stated exploratory talks had taken place over a permanent deal. His loan was cut short and was recalled early by West Ham on 29 December 2017. During his time in Germany, he made four appearances for Gladbach and impressed then West Ham boss, David Moyes with his development.
Upon his return to England, Oxford started training with the first team but got injured shortly after which resulted in a single outing in the Premier League against Crystal Palace as a substitute.
On January 31, 2018, Oxford was again loaned to Borussia Monchengladbach. In his second spell at Gladbach, the youngster played in 4 matches as a right-back while adding more substance to his development.
After the end of the loan spell, he returned to east London for the 2018/19 season. The new Hammers boss, Manuel Pellegrini wasn’t convinced of the teenager’s ability in the first team and sent him to the reserves. He’s currently playing in the Premier League 2 for West Ham Under-23 where he played in all 9 matches so far, scoring two goals.
Being loaned out over and over again, and struggling to make an impact in a game as a promising teenager does not bode well for a player once touted as the “next Rio Ferdinand.” It’s easy for young footballers to lose their way, but for Oxford to make such an impact on his debut certainly gives hope. His slow but steady improvements in the Premier League 2 are getting him off to a fine restart.