Arsenal: Should Forward Benik Afobe Be Sent out on Loan This Season?
With Joel Campbell set to earn his (blue-and-white) stripes for Real Betis this season, joining the La Liga side for a season-long loan, and Arsene Wenger having said that forwards Nicklas Bendtner and Park Chu-Young will soon be on their way out the Emirates door, the number of forwards within the Arsenal camp has quickly dwindled from bursting to bare-bones.
The situation is far from precarious so long as a certain Dutch No. 10 stays on for another season, but given as how we saw this same sort of transfer saga play out a summer ago, it would seem to behoove the club not to stake too much faith in Robin van Persie playing out his contract, and scoring goals like there's no tomorrow along the way—his current deal expires after the 2012-2013 season.
Thankfully, Wenger reacted quickly during this transfer window to pick up forwards Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud. The pair enjoyed exceptional seasons with former clubs FC Cologne and Montpellier, respectively, last season, scoring a combined 39 league goals—18 and 21—between them.
So help is on the way. But is it enough?
With the glaring lack of firepower outside of Van Persie's prodigious production of 30 league strikes—37 when you count all competitions last season, (the two other officially recognized center forwards with Arsenal last season, Park and Marouane Chamakh, provided just one league goal between them)—the additions of Giroud and Podolski are nothing if not timely.
Speaking after Arsenal's July 29 friendly against Kitchee FC in Hong Kong, Wenger said that he "cannot" play the two signings in preseason, and will look to "ease them into the Premier League," the Daily Mail reported.
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Arsenal have just one official friendly remaining, against Podolski's former club FC Cologne, before the start of the season, although Wenger has said he will look for an additional match in August.
Wenger's pronouncement about the unavailability of the "new two" means that in the worst-case scenario (i.e. Van Persie leaving the club in the next two weeks), Marouane Chamakh could be called upon to start against Sunderland on the 18th.
And while the Moroccan performed admirably when starting Arsenal's season opener two seasons ago, at Anfield no less—he scored...well, sort of bundled home the equalizer in a 1-1 draw—it has become evident that he has devolved into a mere shell of that former player.
Thus, we return to Afobe.
Just 19 years of age, with precious little in the way of first-team football at Arsenal under his belt, the striker nevertheless feels confident that the 2012-13 season could be a seminal moment in his career.
Speaking to Arsenal's official website ahead of the friendly with Malaysian XI last week, Afobe cited teammate and compatriot Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's meteoric rise to the fore of English football last season as a means of inspiration, saying he hopes he can "follow in (Oxlade-Chamberlain's) footsteps" in 2012-13.
That dream seemed close to becoming a reality last summer, as the teenage forward featured in the Emirates Cup—he was the man who came on for Jack Wilshere against New York Red Bulls, in what remains Wilshere's last appearance with the Gunners as he has fought long and hard to return from a cumbersome succession of problems to his ankle.
It was a Wilshere-esque diagnosis of sorts, in that the groin problem was first believed to require a mere 10 days of convalescence.
That appraisal then bloomed to four months, before the eventual six months it took Afobe to begin playing again.
The set-back put a damper on his first-team plans at the Emirates, but Afobe did secure a loan move to Reading at the end of last season and appeared in three games for the Royals, enjoying the furor which resulted as the club secured promotion to the Premier League.
Bolstered by that spell, Afobe launched into what he described to Official Arsenal Magazine as his "pre-pre-season training" in June, ahead of featuring for England at the U-19 European Championships in July.
Noting how important it is to develop fitness during the crucial summer months, Afobe's dedication toward making 2012-13 count was becoming increasingly evident.
At the U-19 Championships, he was rampant, scoring a goal and starting two of England's three group stage matches. England would finish top of their group on the strength of seven points.
Though the Three Lions would see their tournament end in the semifinals after losing 2-1 to Greece in extra time, Afobe made his mark in the match, scoring in the 56th minute.
Afobe clocked 281 minutes during the competition, and while the East London native failed in his quest to fire the U-19's to glory—which would have seen them become the first England team in history to win the European Championships at the U-17 and U-19 level with the same group of players—he could certainly hold his head high for his contribution.
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Two goals in just three matches tends to do that.
The loss to Greece came on July 12, and before two weeks had passed Afobe was on the Arsenal charter plane, one of two strikers selected by Wenger (Chamakh was the other) for the pre-season tour of Asia.
Coming on as a half-time substitute against Malaysia XI, Afobe continued his stirring form from Estonia, nearly finding the back of the net twice—forcing a good save from keeper Mohd Farizal Marlias in the 66th minute before firing over the bar from close range in the 81st.
Afobe was a 58th minute substitute in Arsenal's next match, a 2-0 friendly defeat against Premier League title holders Manchester City in Beijing.
His performance was of the muted sort in that one, but he quickly resurfaced, nearly finding the back of the net against Hong Kong power Kitchee FC in Arsenal's final game of the tour.
Afobe rose well to meet Oxlade-Chamberlain's lofted cross against Kitchee, but could only head over in the eventual 2-2 draw.
So What Next?
The young man, who joined Arsenal's youth academy at age 8, had dreamed of playing for the Gunners' first team since he was six.
Now, he finally appears to be on the fast-track toward realizing that goal.
It remains to be seen what Wenger will do in the next two-and-a-half weeks leading up to the season opener, but one would think that Afobe has a very good chance of at least cracking the team sheet against the Black Cats.
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A loan move may well be in the offing down the line, but one must wonder whether that would be in Afobe's—or to a greater extent, the club's—best interest at this juncture.
Podolski, aged 27, and Giroud, 25, are far more seasoned than the Londoner, but neither of the new signings has any experience at the Premier League level.
Afobe has shown an uncanny instinct for goal, as well as intelligent movement in the final third during this pre-season. Perhaps he's earned his chance at some playing time in league play.
It would be rash to start him in the opener, as Wilshere did against Liverpool two years ago (although it seems like just yesterday).
But just as Wilshere enjoyed massive amounts of first-team football in 2010-11 (he made 49 total appearances), and Oxlade-Chamberlain did last season, albeit to a lesser extent, it might be yet another masterstroke from Wenger to bring along Afobe as he did the Ox in 2011-12.
Slowly, in order to build up his experience at the first-team level. But once he's ready, one thinks Afobe could become a massive contributor, as was the Ox last season.
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