Two and a half years have passed since Arsenal demolished Aston Villa 5-0 at the Emirates Stadium. In a routine Sunday afternoon stroll on February’s first day, Chuba Akpom was given 20 minutes to impress, replacing Olivier Giroud off the bench.
Within five minutes, some intelligent play saw Akpom dragged down, winning a penalty which Santi Cazorla dispatched. The striker’s movement was good, he had some nice touches and the cameo could be qualified as a success. Three days later he signed a new long-term contract with the club.
Since then, he has barely featured for Arsenal, with loan spells at Hull City and Brighton & Hove Albion (pre-Premier League) the basis of his league football over the last two years. At the Tigers, he made 19 league starts, with a further 16 appearances off the bench, which at the time wasn’t bad for a 20-year-old. His return of just three goals was disappointing however, with much more expected of him.
On the south coast last term, he reached a lower point. His four month spell resulted in just ten games – only once from the start – and he was the subject of frustration from the fanbase. His attitude and commitment were both questioned before his inevitable return in the summer. A once promising looking career at Arsenal was now shrouded in mystery.
I couldn’t help but feel for Akpom last night. Introduced far earlier than Eddie Nketiah, probably based on his four-years of added age and experience, the Gunners needed a goal. Akpom couldn’t deliver it, so Arsene Wenger went all-out and brought on the 18-year-old as well.
Within a quarter of an hour, Nketiah had already had a more memorable Arsenal career than Akpom. Wherever Nketiah goes from here, he’ll always have Norwich at home in the League Cup. As a young striker, coming on to turnaround a 1-0 reverse into a win with a pair of goals is really the stuff of dreams, and it’s the impact Akpom can now only dream of having.
I’ve thought it’s been telling this season that the 22-year-old had been yet to feature until last night. Despite the ‘B Team’ opportunities the Carabao Cup and Europa League have provided, Akpom has remained an unused sub. Even Nketiah was afforded a couple of minutes out in Belarus the other week as Arsenal cruised at 4-2 up.
The Norwich game may well be looked on as the final nail in the coffin for Akpom’s Gunners career. Following Nketiah’s brace, he now feels further away from the first team than ever, such was his ability to make any sort of impact – instant or otherwise so far.
Much like Benik Afobe before him, I was desperate for Akpom to come good. For all the Jack Wilshere’s or Hector Bellerin’s that have come into Arsenal’s team over the years, a prolific striker from the academy is still the dream for me. Strangely, Niklas Bendtner almost made it, but not quite!
But, ask any Arsenal fan today who the new star or next academy hero might be, and the overwhelming response will be for Nketiah – and rightly so after such a display. Even (formerly) latest bright young thing Reiss Nelson seems to have been forgotten in the aftermath of the result.
Akpom though, is staring into the face of vanishing. His age is now a factor – at 22 much more is expected of you than at 18 – and the emergence of Nketiah will surely only set him back further. A departure in January or next summer now seem more likely than ever.
For Eddie, who knows what the future holds? I would suggest that the loan spells Afobe and Akpom were sent out on are proof that this isn’t always the route a young striking prospect should take. Success at a club in a lower division is not a guarantee, and there is vast amounts of pressure placed on young shoulders to have positive impacts for these clubs, who have their own set of aims and supporter expectations.
Perhaps then, Wenger will take a leaf out of Mauricio Pochettino’s book (gulp) and decide the best place for Nketiah to learn and be moulded into the player he wants him to be, is right here at Arsenal. Training and being mentored by a striker like Alexandre Lacazette, as well as being able to call on the experiences of Giroud, would surely be beneficial.
Really, it is far too early to make sweeping predictions about Nketiah’s future, the role he might play and the impact he might go on to have for us. For Akpom however, what happens next appears a little easier to see, though unfortunately it’s far bleaker.
Editor’s note – Was Kevin Campbell the last home grown striker to make a success in the first team at Arsenal or can we count Nicklas Bendtner?