Saturday, June 19, 2021
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The latest football news from 90 Minutes Online

Why didn’t Benik Afobe get a chance at Arsenal?

Afobe at Wolves

It’s 6 o’clock on a Saturday night and Benik Afobe has just scored 2 and set 1 up in Wolves’ 5-0 win over Rotherham at Molineux. That’s 5 in 6 for his new club. He’s the latest in a long line of young English prospects to be discarded by Arsène Wenger. Why?




Afobe joined Wolves on a three-and-a-half year deal in January for an undisclosed fee, after spending the first half of the season on loan at MK Dons. He scored 19 goals in 30 appearances there, including a brace in the shock Carling Cup win over Man United. About Afobe’s January move to Wolverhampton, Wenger said:



“Benik has made a name through his performances and he is now rewarded with a move to Wolves. I believe that it’s very interesting for him as well. He deserves it. We like him very much here and I’m happy that he got the chance.”



But why wasn’t he given a chance by Wenger? A man who once said:



“The problem is that the Premier League has the best players in the world, and statistically not all of them can be born in England. But we don’t have enough English players: we are working very hard on it.”



Afobe’s early promise

Afobe scored consistently during his rise through Arsenal’s academy ranks, which he joined aged 8. He played at every age level for England’s youth teams, scoring 24 goals in 38 appearances. In 2010, he left London Colney for the first of 6 loan spells. In 5 years, he made 90 league appearances and scored 19 goals while out on loan.



Young Benik had this to say from Milton Keynes in November:

“At the moment I’m enjoying my football but I want to go back to Arsenal in the summer with my head held high and happy with the season I had. I want to prove them right because I know they believe in me.”



I can’t help feeling a bit sad about that quote. He was never going to get a chance at Arsenal. Young English players have done little more than make up the numbers during Wenger’s 18 years in charge.



Sanogo’s advantage: unclear

Like Benik Afobe, Yaya Sanogo is 22. Just 2 and a bit weeks separate their births. Like Afobe, Sanogo’s goal-scoring record was impressive for club and country as a youth team player.



But, unlike Afobe, Sanogo was given the opportunity to play in a first team. He was just 16 years old when he made his debut for Auxerre. Despite breaking a leg and missing most of the 2010/11 season, Sanogo scored 11 times in 21 first team appearances whilst still a teenager.



That’s eye-catching stuff. Wenger’s eye was duly caught and the player signed for Arsenal in 2013. Here’s what Wenger said when Sanogo arrived:



“Sanogo is a good young signing for us. He has shown he has potential with his recent performances for Auxerre and also for the France Under-20 side. We are looking forward to Yaya joining us and continuing his promising development.”



Unless you’re dealing with a genuinely world class talent – and by the age of 22 or 23 I think in most cases this will already be clear – the differences between players like Afobe and Sanogo are minimal. Like Afobe, Sanogo has now been shipped out on loan to ‘continue his development’.



So why does Sanogo the prospect excite Wenger but Afobe’s potential doesn’t?



‘We make superstars': do we?

Arsenal’s academy has produced a shockingly small number of English players for the first team squad under Wenger. Here’s the Frenchman’s position on transfers and player development:



“We do not buy superstars. We make them.”



This can be read 2 ways. First: ‘We don’t need to spend £30m on a superstar. We can make our own.’ This quote predates Özil and Sánchez, of course, but this was his line for a long time.



Second, with regards to making our own: ‘We buy them when they’re raw, and then we make superstars out of them.’



He’s not talking about developing young English players for his English football club. He’s talking about Anelka, Vieira, Henry, Fábregas, Flamini, Clichy, Touré, Walcott, Szczęsny, Ramsey, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Sanogo, Chambers. 16-22 year-olds plucked from other clubs’ academies and turned into first team Arsenal players. Why does it have to be that way?



Arsenal’s scouting staff should be able to spot young, local, English talent. Academy coaches should be able to teach them well from the ages of 9 and 10 so that a larger proportion become genuine first team prospects.



We shouldn’t have to raid the academies of French youth teams – and Southampton – for players to develop. There are thousands of kids playing football every week on our doorstep.



Andries Jonker: a wind of change?

Jack Wilshere and Kieran Gibbs aren’t enough from 18 years of ‘work’. Arsenal’s academy director is Dutchman Andries Jonker. He’s worked with Louis Van Gaal at Barcelona and Bayern Munich. In September last year he gave a very frank assessment of the current state of affairs:



“Arsenal want more talented players to come through, because that has been lacking. They want me to develop the players from the academy much better than it was done before. At this moment, considering the investments the club have made, players have hardly been developed properly. This is why they wanted me, a man who can guide the coaches and who can influence the other coaches.”



Ivan Gazidis, said Jonker, wants Arsenal to have the best academy in the world. He may well want that. But the problem is that Wenger doesn’t seem to care at all. Jonker even alluded to it in his interview:



It is important that Wenger and I work closely together. What I do see is that everybody at the club has the feeling that they need to have the green light from Wenger before they do anything. But maybe that is not the case.



In other words, nothing’s been done because Wenger hasn’t ordered it. That Arsène’s word is the last at Arsenal is hardly news. We’ve known about his level of control for many years. Unless Jonker can exert some real influence, it seems unlikely that things will change.




Maybe Chuba Akpom – the hottest prospect since Afobe – will go on to play 300 games for the club. Perhaps that’s why Afobe was allowed to leave. I hope that’s the case, but I won’t hold my breath.

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