Arsenal fans, perhaps the most fickle collection of people on the planet, are enamoured with Joel Campbell at the moment. The Costa Rica forward can do no wrong and must be manager Arsene Wenger’s first choice on the right side of the club’s attack.
But the fanfare for Campbell wasn’t always so positive. When he was signed from Deportivo Saprissa as a 19-year-old in the summer of 2011, many dismissed the move as yet another unknown youngster Wenger wanted but who wouldn’t help the club compete for major prizes.
But it’s the manager’s faith in youth, so often used to deride him, that has helped Campbell change the mood.
He’s scored five times and provided as many assists in all competitions, according to ESPN FC.
More than just numbers though, Campbell is developing a character as an attacking player. His arc involves emphasising a discerning eye for a defence-splitting pass.
It’s a quality that showed up in the Gunners recent 4-0 win over Hull City in an FA Cup fifth round replay. Campbell supplied the third of those goals, teeing up Theo Walcott with an astute through ball.
Cutting in from the right flank onto the left foot he favours like a life source, Campbell glided one pass along the ground that dissected three Hull defenders before finding Walcott alone in the box.
The vision and technique to spot free runners and connect with them is fast becoming the best feature of Campbell’s game.
Those qualities showed up when the 23-year-old found Olivier Giroud for a vital goal in a 3-0 win over Olympiakos in December, a victory that assured qualification from the UEFA Champions League group stage.
Dragging the ball around his marker and shimmying to make space in the box, Campbell waited for Giroud’s run before sweeping a pass for the big French striker to simply side-foot into the net.
Campbell was again the provider for Arsenal’s first goal in a 3-3 Premier League draw with Liverpool at Anfield in January. His touch to control a ball dropping from the sky was excellent, but the dragged pass around Mamadou Sakho to let Aaron Ramsey slot home was even better.
Campbell has matched industry with invention, a combination that is a tribute to the patience of Wenger. It’s taken nearly five years and four loan moves, but Wenger didn’t give up on the bargain from Central America.
That’s how it goes with Wenger when it comes to young talent. He’s willing to wait for potential to develop, even if it means performances, results and even his own reputation suffering in the short-term.
More importantly, Wenger is always ready to let raw but promising youthful gems find their own identities as players. It’s on-the-job training the most precocious fledglings pass with flying colours, while the failed projects never master it.
Campbell belongs in the former category, and 19-year-old Alex Iwobi seems set to join him.
A rangy, brazen attacking midfielder with go-go gadget limbs, Iwobi is a jack of all trades up front. His next step will be to become a master of one position: either on the wing or as a No. 10.
The latter is a role he’s taken up in this season’s FA Cup, where the results have been positive. Iwobi’s footwork is very impressive, granting him the ability to carry the ball past defenders, a trait too few in the current Arsenal squad possess.
While his final pass can often go astray or his first touch can be clumsy, Iwobi never loses his will to try something creative and forward-thinking. That’s admirable bravado for a teenager largely unknown before this season.
It’s also the level of confidence Wenger encourages in his junior talents. The Arsenal boss “turned down several loan offers from England and abroad” for Iwobi last summer, according to James Olley of the London Evening Standard, who also notes how Wenger “has taken every opportunity to talk up Iwobi’s prospects, often unprompted.”
That’s a consistent show of faith every developing player needs.
One young player developing pretty well is Jeff Reine-Adelaide, the gifted teenager Wenger paid £1.75 million to Racing Club Lens for last summer.
Reine-Adelaide is that rare combination of stylish technique, natural impish flair and imposing physicality. Hamish Mackay of the Daily Mirror has described how physical attributes currently stand out most about the 18-year-old’s game:
“At just over six foot tall and relatively well built, he’s physically developed beyond his years. Think back to the process of bulking up Cesc Fabregas, Jack Wilshere and Theo Wacott all went through at Arsenal. Reine-Adelaide is already there.”
Reine-Adelaide isn’t afraid to use what nature gave him, something he proved during an inspiring cameo against Hull. More than once he bulldozed his way through defenders, displaying both immaculate control and defiant brawn.
Just like Iwobi, the young Frenchman needs to find his best position. It’s a task Wenger is sure to give him time for.
But circumstances may dictate where Calum Chambers plies his trades for the Gunners. The 21-year-old former Southampton prodigy who cost Wenger close to £16 million in 2014, can play right-back, holding midfielder or central defender.
It’s the latter position where Chambers’ education seems set to undergo its most significant phase. With more experienced options Per Mertesacker, Gabriel and Laurent Koscielny nursing injuries, Chambers’ ability to man the middle could be crucial for Arsenal’s season, per Kevin Coulson of Eurosport.
But the performances of January addition Mohamed Elneny are sure to be just as important. The 23-year-old Egyptian midfield workhorse has impressed many in recent matches, including Henry Winter of The Times:
Elneny has already shown his flair for finding a pass between the lines, as well as for covering ground with a sense of situational awareness. Unlike most Arsenal midfielders, the Egyptian doesn’t confine himself to fixed positions, instead staying on the move to make himself a factor all over the pitch.
Along with Campbell, Elneny is the senior figure among a quintet of fledgling stars who will be key to Arsenal’s hopes for current and future success. The group are also proof that the man in the dugout remains as committed as ever to his philosophy of building through youth.
There were unmistakable signs of the Wenger doctrine still at work last season. Specifically, the rapid rise of 20-year-old Spanish right-back Hector Bellerin, a dynamic athlete and creative talent blessed with an awesome engine.
Later during that same campaign, circumstances brought defensive midfielder Francis Coquelin back into the fold. Sure, a mountain of injuries (there’s a surprise) forced Wenger’s hand into dragging Coquelin back from loan obscurity with Charlton Athletic. Yet, it was Wenger who originally gave Coquelin his debut back in the 2008/09 season.
Wenger’s take on 24-year-old Coquelin’s emergence from loanee outcast to the only true destroyer in Arsenal’s midfield reveals everything about the way the Gunners chief gives his young players the initiative to develop their own games:
“He analysed well what he is good at: defending in midfield. He was in between a bit the playmaking position and a box-to-box player, he is not that, he’s a sitting player who can win the ball. He restricted his game to that and you make success in life with what you’re good at. You don’t have all the qualities but you have to express what you’re good at and he’s good at that.”
(Jack Pitt-Brooke of the Independent).
There’s now seven key players in Arsenal’s squad all under the age of 25. That’s a real commitment to youth.
Many might have believed the Wenger Way was dead after events such as the damage control-motivated trolley dash of 2011 that yielded seasoned veterans Mikel Arteta and Per Mertesacker. Then there were the hefty sums paid for established superstars Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and Petr Cech.
But it will be Arsenal’s young core that determines how well Wenger’s team finishes this season.