Ahead of Sunday’s away fixture at Dean Court, a familar face is set to feature against his former side: Benik Afobe, who joined the Arsenal academy at the age of six.
The east London-born forward was spotted by a scout and hasn’t looked back since.
An eye-watering 40 goals for the u16s, 21 goals for the u18s and it was fairly evident from his early teenage years that he’d shown enough promise to suggest he’d be offered a professional contract when the time eventually came.
That time did come, in February 2010 – months after reports suggested La Liga giants Barcelona were targeting a possible swoop for his signature. A powerful, agile, explosive player who has an eye for goal, it was no surprise that the youngster was linked with a move away from the club. Considering he was never guaranteed a firm place within the first-team, it was becoming harder to see where he’d fit into an Arsenal side, if at all.
A number of loans, six in total, across English second and third tier sides, were seen as Afobe’s perfect opportunity to prove his worth.
The jump from youth level to competitive football is always seen as the hardest, because you’re actually fighting for points – whereas in the youth ranks, results are important but individual performances take priority.
Afobe struggled to take his chance with both hands when it was there. He failed to maintain consistency and injuries took their toll on his confidence. A serious groin injury (which kept him out for six months) as well as a knee problem (eight months) in successive seasons meant his development stalled. Everyone knew he was talented, but people seem to forget or seemingly underestimate a player’s capabilities as time passes gradually.
The possible turning point for Benik was during his loan spell at MK Dons in the 2014/15 campaign. Although the loan was cut short in January, it allowed him to rebuild confidence in his ability and, amongst notable results, scoring a well-taken brace to knock Manchester United out of the League Cup was undoubtedly high on his list.
Midway through January of 2015, Wolves completed a deal to sign Afobe for a reported fee of £2m. Given his potential, age, knack for goalscoring and the fact he’s a homegrown player, eyebrows were unsurprisingly raised.
Here comes the unpopular opinion. Forget about the fee for a moment – we probably should have got more for him – but in the long-run, it was a good, calculated decision. Not just for the club, but the player himself. Afobe isn’t the type of player to be content with cameo appearances on a regular basis, just substitute minutes.
The main reason he left the way he did, in such an sharp manner, was because he knew there were better opportunities for regular first-team football elsewhere – provided he justified his worth in a stable, competitive environment.
From his point of view, moving from place-to-place every season is unsettling. Away from family and friends, constantly being unsure of what will happen in future are just two main factors in his possible motives for departure.
Between 2011 and 2013, were the breakthrough years from which Afobe could’ve established his first-team credentials, if he managed to consistently impress when given the opportunity to do so.
The crop of talented youth players in his age-group, such as Ignasi Miguel, Nico Yennaris and Thomas Eisfield have all come and eventually departed – for similar reasons. Héctor Bellerín is the only exception to have stayed at the club to become a first-team regular over the past few seasons. Serge Gnabry still has time, as do Isaac Hayden and Chuba Akpom, but the aforementioned years were a crucial stage where Arsenal were in search of a reliable striker who could take some pressure of Robin van Persie and Theo Walcott at the time.
Instead, a combination of injuries and inconsistency hurt Afobe’s chances of establishing himself within the side despite showing promise.
In terms of longevity, Afobe turns 23 next Friday and if he was still at Arsenal, there’s no guarantee he’d be playing much, if at all. Questions would continue to surround his future, suggesting he’s wasting away talent by staying – which just reiterates how good you have to be, in order to make it from a younger age nowadays.
The likes of Stephy Mavididi and Donyell Malen (both 17) will be itching for that opportunity, sooner rather than later. As we’ve previously stated, Arsenal have established themselves as a side over the past few years who’ve continued to build up the pulling power to lure world-class players into their ranks.
As an aspiring professional, you need to prove your worth and show you’re good enough to mix it with the ‘big boys’, something that is easier said than done, especially with the wide range of talent which continues to develop at London Colney in the youth ranks.