Ever since this site’s inception in late 2007, the name of Benik Afobe has been a hot topic of discussion with regards to the club’s youth set-up. Now he is an Arsenal player no longer, having sealed a permanent move to Championship side Wolverhampton Wanderers, but it is worth reflecting on the story of his development over the past few years.
Afobe’s name first came to prominence during the 2007/08 campaign when, despite technically being an U15 player, he scored an astonishing 40 goals for the U16 team. He was already being talked up as a potential superstar, which would later lead to Barcelona, of all clubs, attempting to sign him.
The hype wasn’t without foundation, either, as we quickly discovered when he transferred his goalscoring exploits onto the international stage, equalling Michael Owen’s record of four goals for the England U16 team.
Any concerns about whether he could step up to the Arsenal U18 team were quickly allayed when, still a schoolboy, he scored on his debut at that level with a dramatic header against Fulham. There followed an exemplary season in front of goal for the title winning youth team, whilst Afobe also featured fleetingly for the Reserves and in the successful FA Youth Cup campaign.
He took his talent to new heights in the 2009/10 season, firing a strong Arsenal U18s team to a second successive league championship, whilst also picking up a medal at international level too as part of the England U17 team that won the European Championships at that age group.
Afobe’s talent was no longer a secret, with clubs queuing up to take the prodigious striker on loan. A temporary move to Huddersfield Town materialised and the youngster, who was just 17 at the start of the spell, proved he could cut in League One with some excellent performances.
By 2011 he seemed set for a breakthrough into the Arsenal first-team, but then came the first in what proved to be a series of injury setbacks that halted his progress. He featured in the Emirates Cup against New York Red Bulls, but spent much of the campaign on the sidelines, although he did return in time to enjoy a short spell at Reading, who earned promotion to the Premier League.
From there things began to hit something of a downward spiral for Afobe. A loan spell at Bolton Wanderers didn’t quite work out, whilst a stint at Millwall was cut short by a knee problem.
The signing of Yaya Sanogo looked to be something of a death knell for Afobe’s Arsenal career but the England youth international was still determined to make the breakthrough. He spent the majority of last season with Sheffield Wednesday without ever really setting the world alight, but it was this season, at MK Dons, where he was back to his clinical best, with his goals in the Capital One Cup victory over Manchester United a notable highlight.
For all that, though, Afobe leaves Arsenal without a competitive appearance for the first-team to his name. That is merely a consequence of a quirk of fate than down to any fault on his part, but if he is to fulfil his dream of becoming a Premier League striker he will have to work his way up from the Championship first.
It was anticipated that Afobe would finally break the trend of Arsenal struggling to produce a competent centre-forward of their own, but hopes in that regard will now be pinned on Chuba Akpom, whose own future at the club is far from secure.
With regards to Afobe, though, some of the memories of his performances in an Arsenal shirt at youth level will be endearing, from the Academy League Play-Off Final success against Nottingham Forest in 2010 to the typically adroit finish in the U21 Premier League Cup against Chelsea last season.
What grates somewhat is that none of Afobe, Chuks Aneke or Nico Yennaris, who rose through the ranks together at Arsenal, were able to quite make the grade at the club, although all three look set for prolonged careers at a relatively high level.
There will be some who will question the decision to let Afobe leave, but now, off the back of some quite excellent performances for MK Dons, is the right time to let him depart. His association with Arsenal, which commenced as far back as 2001, is now over, but his situation will serve as a reminder to those currently in the Academy that even those considered to have enormous potential aren’t guaranteed to make it in the long term.
Benik Afobe’s Arsenal record
U21s- 25 appearances (7 goals)
U18s- 45 appearances (34 goals)