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Heart Of Football

The real one Wenger may regret letting go

Kane left Arsenal at 10 but Bournemouth's Afobe could kill off the Gunners' title hopes

Nobody knows better than Arsene Wenger how the decisions to let even a schoolboy player go from your club might in time return to haunt you.

His Arsenal team were looking good for their first English Premier League(EPL) title in 12 years, until an alarming run of games dropped the Gunners from first to fourth in just a few weeks.

Twenty years of Wenger philosophy and judgment from the first team to the kindergarten might be in peril here. And wouldn't you just know it, as Arsenal travel to the south coast for their first visit ever to Bournemouth, there is a scorer down there who came up through the Arsenal boys' teams and never got a chance to play in Wenger's first XI. Benik Afobe is his name.

Born to Congolese parents and raised in Arsenal's north London catchment area, he was apparently always fast and had an eye for goal. In fact, there were two kids in the same Arsenal recruitment batch who, as nine-year-olds, scored an insane amount of goals.

A photo emerged this week of Benik Afobe and Harry Kane kitted out as Junior Gunners.

Wenger has already regretted that Kane, who was small and slow for his age, had been allowed to leave - especially since he is firing in goals for Tottenham Hotspur and England with deadly regularity.


Arsenal were sitting pretty atop the table till mid-January and they could certainly have done with the three goals in three games that their former player Benik Afobe has just scored for his new side Bournemouth. PHOTO: REUTERS

The past three games are a microcosm of a 38-game EPL season. Yet Afobe's goals might save Bournemouth's status, and the lack of any goal in that same timeframe might scupper Arsenal's title aspiration.

Kane was let go by the time he was 10. Afobe, by contrast, matured through every age group for Arsenal and also for England from Under-12 team upwards.

And if Monsieur Wenger might be excused for not foreseeing what young Kane might turn into, the buck surely stops with the man at the top as regards Afobe.

The manager had the boy, the youth, and the man under his wing until just after Afobe turned 21. Arsenal had loaned him out six times - to Huddersfield, Reading, Bolton, Millwall, Sheffield Wednesday and Milton Keynes Dons, and then sold him to Wolverhampton Wanderers for £10 million (S$20.4 million).

Afobe never made an appearance in Arsenal's first team.

"We were goal machines, me and Harry, when we were Arsenal boys," he said this weekend. "Everyone has his own destiny, mine was to go on loans and have a few injuries. I loved Arsenal, but to be honest, my mental strength came from going out on loan, living in different parts of England."

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Wenger doesn't say it (wouldn't dare on the eve of Arsenal coming up against Afobe for the first time as an opponent), but he obviously doubted something in the player's make-up.

"We are aware that Benik is quick, strong and has good movement in the box," Wenger said on Friday. "He has done extremely well, beyond expectation. Congratulations to him, overall you educate people to influence their lives and give them success."

That's nice, and from Wenger it is more than likely genuine.

But how the Gunners, without a goal in three EPL games for the first time in seven seasons, could have done with the three goals in three games Afobe has just netted for his new club, Bournemouth.

In the fullness of time, this short barren run could cost Arsenal the earth. The £12 million that Bournemouth have just paid Wolves for Afobe, is not much in the grand scheme of things.

Wenger has trawled the world and concluded that there are no strikers available who are better than what he has in Olivier Giroud, Theo Walcott and the long-injured Danny Welbeck.

Bournemouth took the chance on Afobe in the January window because their two main strikers, Callum Wilson and Max Gradel, were both struck down with knee cruciate ligament tears at the start of this season.

The Cherries had little on top. But in Eddie Howe, Bournemouth have a kind of shoestring version of Wenger in terms of club loyalty and seeking to play with the ball on the ground, with sharp, quick, articulate passing out of midfield.

This is Bournemouth's first season in the top flight of English football. Dean Court, the club's home for 105 years, could be fitted more than five times inside Arsenal's 60,000-plus capacity Emirates Stadium.

However, with momentum from rising through all four divisions in England since facing bankruptcy, AFC Bournemouth are paupers no more. They have Russian influence, and buying power, in the boardroom.

Arsenal have an uneasy alliance between the American Stan Kroenke, whose 67.02 per cent shareholding gives him control, and the Russian-Uzbek Alisher Usmanov, who remains outside the boardroom despite owning 30.04 per cent of the shares.

Between them, Wenger is far and away the longest reigning manager/head coach/ruler of everything from the first team to the youth policy in any major club on earth, never mind just the "hire 'em, fire 'em" Premier League.

It will be 20 years this coming September that he first walked into what was then Highbury Stadium and began to reshape everything around him.

The stadium, the playing style, the early successes sacrificed to a degree by loving the club so much he refused to overspend while the move to the Emirates sucked so much money out of the coffers.

Now that stadium, Wenger's baby as much as his redesigned training grounds and youth set-up, make Arsenal the most self-sufficient club in England. But he needs a title, on top of the last two FA Cups, to cement that legacy.

Arsenal will not get a better chance than this season. Manchester City and Chelsea started as favourites because of the sheer wealth that the foreign owners invest in them. But until last month, Arsenal's lead was clear.

Even the critics had to concede that Giroud was - is - a better centre-forward than they imagined. And Walcott, after a career-threatening injury, is still one of the fastest - if sometimes mercurial - players in the league.

The past three games are a microcosm of a 38-game EPL season. Yet the Afobe goals might save Bournemouth's status and the lack of any goal in that same timeframe might scupper Arsenal's title aspiration.

Never mind the millions spent, a penny for the thoughts of Wenger and Afobe at kick-off time today would be priceless.

Correction: An earlier version of the story stated that Stan Kroenke held 66.64 per cent of the shares, and Alisher Usmanov held 29.11 per cent of the shares. The figures have been updated to reflect the correct percentage held by the two men.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 07, 2016, with the headline 'The real one Wenger may regret letting go'. Print Edition | Subscribe