Scout Report: Will Chuba Akpom make the grade at Arsenal?
19-year-old Arsenal striker Akpom emerged from the Arsenal academy but he has some big boots to fill
For years, Arsenal fans have nodded their heads in disapproval whenever their manager, Arsene Wenger, made bold statements about how his team is ready to challenge for the title. But this time, it feels different. Having broken the trophyless run jinx 15 months ago, and retaining the FA Cup last season, the team looks confident of mounting a serious challenge for the Premier League trophy and the squad looks well-stocked in all departments.
Except, as most Arsenal fans say, in one area. The lack of a bona fide world-class striker to lead the Arsenal attack is something holding the Gunners back from going the distance in the Champions League and the Premier League. Since Robin van Persie left in 2012 Arsenal have lacked a world-class striker. And this is a fan base which has seen some of the best strikers in Europe wear the red-and-white of Arsenal.
In the event, there has been a lot of excitement about Chuba Akpom – a product of Arsenal’s Hale End Academy. It would not be amiss to say that the Arsenal faithful have been waiting for a striker to emerge from the youth ranks. After all, this is a club that has seen the like of Charlie George and Paul Merson emerge from the academy and make their mark on the international stage.
But after Merson the Arsenal academy has not produced any strikers of note. Prolific scorers at the youth level have seen their careers fizzle out as many found the big stage too hot to handle. Take, for instance, the duo of Nicklas Bendtner and Arturo Lupoli. Both were a formidable striking pair at the youth level and many expected them to get promoted to the first team. While the Dane’s “exploits” are now well-known, the Italian now plies his trade in the Serie C having made a solitary appearance in the Premier League for the Gunners.
With the weight of history against him, Akpom has his task cut out to make it as a top-class Premier League striker.
Akpom joined Arsenal at the tender age of six. In what was a sign of things to come, he won the ‘Player of the Tournament’ in his first ever tournament, at the age of seven. There was no stopping him as he made his debut for the Arsenal Under-18’s at the age of 15.
He was rated highly by the academy coaches and the 2012/13 season was a breakthrough of sorts. He scored 10 goals from 10 appearances in the U21 Elite Premier League group and scored a total of 13 goals from 20 appearances. These performances caught the eye of Arsene Wenger who called him into the first-team squad as he made the 18-man squad for the Champions League game against Olympiakos.
Pre-season of 2013/14 saw Akpom being included in the senior squad for Arsenal’s Asia tour. There, he scored a total of 4 goals where his speed, agility and youthful exuberance were on show.
He was expected to be loaned out to the Championship but stayed put at Arsenal and made his Premier League debut as a substitute against Sunderland and also played in the League Cup tie against West Brom. He continued his exploits at the youth level though with 4 goals and 3 assists in the UEFA Youth League against the likes of Dortmund and Napoli as Arsenal reached the quarter-finals.
By this time, he was a fixture in the age-group national team too and scored on his U-17 debut in a 4-0 win against Faroe Islands. In September 2012, he made his debut for the England U-19’s. His prolific goal scoring meant that there was a consensus that he had outgrown his level and needed a loan spell lower down the leagues to further hone his skills. In January 2014, he signed for League One side Brentford. and later went out on loan to Coventry City but did not find the net even once in 6 appearances.
The 2014/15 season was once again more of the same for him as he continued his terrific run of form in the Under-21 Premier League by scoring a hat-trick against West Brom at the end of August. Widely expected to go on loan, he once again stayed put and got a run-out in the League Cup defeat at the Emirates against Southampton. He also made 3 appearances in the Premier League.
With clubs across Europe sniffing around him, Arsenal tied him up with a new four-and-a-half year contract in February 2015. This was seen as a vote of confidence by Arsene Wenger in his abilities. He was again sent out on loan to Nottingham Forest in the Championship. There he found the going tough even as he got sufficient playing time. He did not score in 7 appearances for Forest.
Strengths and Weaknesses: What does Akpom bring to the table?
Akpom is once again in the spotlight thanks to his goalscoring exploits on Arsenal’s pre-season tour in Singapore where he scored a hat-trick against Singapore Select XI. An impressive dribbler, his main strength is his pace and strength. Though not a clinical finisher, he can play with his back to the goal (something Olivier Giroud does really well) or on the shoulder of the opposition centre back where he can use his pace to bypass the offside trap.
He can also play on the left wing where his dribbling skills and pace come in handy. For a 19-year-old, Akpom has all the attributes and the attitude to succeed. But, as we have seen with so many promising players, like Benik Afobe, it is really difficult to make the cut at a top club like Arsenal.
Akpom, though, is more than up for the fight. After the recent Emirates Cup in which Alex Iwobi and Jeff Reine-Adelaide caught the eye, and where Akpom looked as if he was trying too hard, he was quoted as saying:
“I’d prefer to stay here and fight for a place and give it my all and compete with the other strikers. There is a lot of talent in the team but I think I am capable of competing and getting a place in the team, it’s all down to hard work.
“The boss really likes playing young players when he can and that motivates the young players because it shows them that they have a chance.”
Despite being highly talented and his desire to stay and fight for a place, there are parts of his game which need further refinement. He has the habit of holding onto the ball and try a fancy dribble or shoot from distance, instead of passing it to a team-mate in a much better position. Also, he has frequently ventured offside against quality defences.
What next for Chuba?
With so many established international stars available to choose from for Wenger and with Theo Walcott also signing a new deal, Akpom is way down the pecking order when it comes to a place in the Arsenal first team. A loan spell and a substantial amount of playing time is needed to iron out the flaws in his game.
Despite the obvious talent, it is noticeable that he has not had a successful outing on loan for the last three years. Of course, there are a lot of other factors that need to fall in place for a loan spell to be successful, but regular playing time will do him more good than just training with the Arsenal first team.
In the event, it is no surprise that there are now reports of Akpom heading on loan to Hull. With Hull looking for an immediate promotion to the Premier League following their relegation to the Championship, it would be a great opportunity for Akpom to make his mark in the rough and tumble of the Championship.
Playing against seasoned defenders would also improve his technical know-how and soften the rough edges to his game. He would also get used to the physicality of English football.
If he replicates his youth-level form at the KC Stadium it would be a win-win agreement for both him and Hull City.