There’s a Chinese proverb which applies quite aptly to Joel Campbell.
“Be not afraid of going slowly. Be afraid only of standing still.”
Arsenal sign a lot of young players who never make it to the first team, let alone manage to hold down a spot in the starting eleven. Campbell is a little different from most, in that he’s already a full international with 11 goals in 55 appearances at the tender age of 23.
In fact, it was his appearances for Costa Rica which first truly got Arsenal fans excited about him, despite signing in 2011, with an eye-catching performance at last year’s World Cup. Playing with freedom across the front line in a counter-attacking side, Campbell was a media darling off the back of his successes in Brazil, and of course it was after that that the questions started.
“What’s happened to Joel Campbell?”
“How have Arsenal managed to ruin such a good player?”
Let’s be clear, we’re not Tottenham Hotspur destroying a player like Roberto Soldado, or Chelsea wrecking £50m man Fernando Torres.
Writing Campbell off
Joel joined the club aged 18, and work permit issues plus a lack of readiness saw him go on loan spells to Lorient, Real Betis, Olympiakos and Villareal. By far the most successful of these was his time in Greece, with 11 goals in 43 appearances a very decent return in the 2013-2014 season. However, his spells in Spain and France were rather less remarkable, and with seven goals in a combined 82 appearances, he was hardly setting the world on fire when he returned to Arsenal this summer.
Uninspiring appearances in the League Cup hardly had the fans calling for his introduction in more serious competitions, and his first Premier League start didn’t arrive until 31st October in the 3-0 away win at Swansea.
It would be fair to say that I didn’t have high hopes for his long term Arsenal career, and I know I wasn’t alone here at Cannon Towers among the writers and podcasters in writing him off.
In truth, I hadn’t seen the raw attributes or any level of development to convince me that he could be an Arsene Wenger player. An Arsenal player.
He was too one-footed, too selfish, and too fond of making the wrong decisions at the wrong time.
Carousel of Progress
Tuesday’s match was the first time I saw Joel make real steps towards staying here beyond the expiry of his current deal. There were still signs of all three flaws, outlined above, on show, but it was the first game where I felt there was major progress on at least two of those three fronts.
A volleyed effort in the second half with his weaker foot which flew close to the far post, even though not a clean hit, to me showed that he is working on and gaining confidence in his two-footedness. While he made a few more decisions which saw him pass when he should have shot (just evading the man arriving at the far post), and shoot where he should have passed, actually demonstrated that he is losing some of that selfishness which for me is the biggest problem any player can face when trying to succeed in a Wenger team.
He has also steadily increased his workrate over time, and he was one of the standout performers midweek again in this regard. In some of the League Cup games, his workrate has been high but in the wrong areas, and his running was much more targeted against Dinamo Zagreb even if there were still moments of indiscipline. At one point, Hector Bellerin was left two-on-one after Campbell chased down a man in the centre when a little more prudence would have seen him track the wider player given the cover in the middle, but it was certainly a failure that came about for all the right reasons and ultimately didn’t cost the team.
The signs of progress are encouraging.
Keeping things in perspective
There was one moment in the second half when a teammate mishit a lofted ball to him across the opposition box, and Joel had a chance to keep it in and save the situation. He didn’t manage to do so, and around me there were numerous mutterings of “Ozil/Alexis would have kept that in.”
For me that missed the point somewhat.
Would Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have definitely kept it in? Maybe five times in ten, but hardly a dead certainty, and therein lies the rub: it’s the Ox who he should be compared to at this stage, as they are at very similar ages. Yes, he’s over enthusiastic, and yes he’s inconsistent, but he’s 23. It’s for that reason that he left Bellerin isolated in the incident I described above too.
He’s a young lad, playing his first proper season in English football, and he’s hardly had a run of games to talk of. We’ve seen players with the experience and ability of Debuchy and Gibbs struggle in the same circumstances, so is it any wonder that he has struggled to hit the ground running immediately in some of his appearances? For all three men, they’re hardly bad players but they’re also not able to be the “drag and drop” replacements that we somewhat unrealistically demand. I’m delighted to see Gibbs, in particular, getting more substitute action as Wenger looks to keep everyone’s eye in.
Forward, inexorably forward
For Campbell, he is of course looking to impress every time he gets a chance, and impress he did on Tuesday. However, it was the smaller improvements to his game that pleased me more and resurrected a hope, however small, in a distant corner of my mind that he has a chance of making it at Arsenal.
There’s certainly a very long way for him to go before we can categorically say he has a future here, but the recent signs are starting to offer up a few sparks.
Joel would do well to heed the words of American writer Robert Collier: “Playing safe is probably the most unsafe thing in the world. You cannot stand still. You must go forward.”
Forward seems a fairly good motto to have for an Arsenal man.
This week, our Costa Rican enigma took a step, however small, forward.