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Benik Afobe faces old club Arsenal as Bournemouth's record signing
Last Updated: 06/02/16 6:43pm
Benik Afobe was with Arsenal for 15 years before being sold to Wolves last year but his goalscoring feats have got him back to the Premier League in quick time. Ahead of the new Bournemouth signing's reunion on Sunday, Adam Bate examines the journey so far…
It's four-and-a-half years since a young Benik Afobe replaced the injured Jack Wilshere in an Emirates Cup game against New York Red Bulls, impressing the Arsenal crowd with his pace and enthusiasm. With Thierry Henry among the opposition and Robin van Persie alongside him, Afobe might not have been the only one hoping this was Arsenal's past, present and future on view.
But a hamstring injury of his own soon scuppered that season and despite staying at the club into 2015, the Emirates Cup run-out was as close as Afobe would get to the Arsenal first team. On Sunday, he'll take on his old club for the first time as Bournemouth's £10m record signing.
Most goals in English football since August 2014
|Sergio Aguero||Man City||49|
Afobe might only be 22 but despite the injury problems he's already packed plenty into his career. Only Sergio Aguero and Harry Kane have scored more goals in English football in the past two years, and his progress could be seen as a fine advert for escaping the cosseted world of London Colney.
"Coming from Arsenal you got used to having nice things as a kid - going on tour, having sponsorship deals from the age of 16 and playing for the England age group teams," Afobe once said of life as a Premier League academy prospect.
"It was easier than other people have had, but growing up and going out on loan, you see players in League One were going home and washing their own boots. You see how grown men live and conduct themselves off the pitch as well."
Afobe's first foray into senior football came as a 17-year-old with Huddersfield, where he forged a promising partnership with Jordan Rhodes and scored eight goals between November 2010 and May 2011 as the Terriers went all the way to the League One play-off final.
Lee Clark was the manager who gave him his debut off the bench in a 2-0 win at Sheffield Wednesday and immediately identified the traits that would get Afobe back to the Premier League.
"For 17 years of age, it was an absolutely fantastic performance," said Clark of that first appearance. "He was outstanding at times, in terms of his runs, beating people, and getting shots on goal. He appreciated his team-mates and he can also look after himself, he can handle the physical side."
Further spells at Reading, Bolton and Millwall added to his experience, while Owls boss Stuart Gray appreciated his gifts during a three-month stint at Hillsborough. "He wants to run in behind and stretch the game, while being technically very good and a strong centre-forward. He's a quality player."
But it was with MK Dons that Afobe really made the breakthrough, scoring 19 goals before Christmas in the 2014/15 season. This sequence included a memorable brace in a 4-0 Capital One Cup thrashing of Manchester United. Jonny Evans simply had no answer to the questions asked of him.
Wolves swooped soon after to secure a £2m deal and the step up proved no problem. Why would it be? Those qualities of pace, power and precision are assets at any level and - combined with a first-class attitude - helped him to 13 goals in 21 games as Wolves pushed for the play-offs.
Unusually for a player so willing to run in behind, Afobe is also happy coming deep. Speaking to former strike-partner Adam Le Fondre, a picture of a complete forward emerges. "I wouldn't say he's a No 9 or a No 10," Le Fondre told Sky Sports. "He's more of an all-round frontman. You can't label him. He's better than just being a No 9. He can drop off and link the play and has great ability."
With Bakary Sako gone and Nouha Dicko injured, this season was more of a struggle and Afobe was dropped by Wolves as recently as December. But it's worth noting that head coach Kenny Jackett praised his attitude and he was into double figures by the time Bournemouth stumped up an eight-figure sum.
That vast profit for Wolves in just 12 months is a reflection of the spiralling prices paid by Premier League clubs, but also an indication of Afobe's potential to step up. After a faltering start on debut against West Ham, he's already given a hint of his talents by netting in the next three games.
Eddie Howe described him as "razor sharp" in getting off the mark against Norwich and a neat finish at Sunderland underlined what he can offer in front of goal. Afobe's winner against Crystal Palace on Tuesday made it three in three, ending any thoughts that he might not get chances at this level.
Indeed, according to Opta, Afobe has also missed three clear chances for his new club. So far, he's averaging a clear chance every 59 minutes - topping a list that includes Sergio Aguero, Odion Ighalo, Jamie Vardy and Harry Kane among the rest of the top 10.
Clear chance frequency - PL 2015/16
|Forward||Club||Clear chances (min. 3)||Frequency (mins)|
|Sergio Aguero||Man City||16||78|
|Mame Biram Diouf||Stoke||8||92|
All the signs are that Afobe has the intelligence in his movement to elude defenders even at Premier League level. The next test will be the close attentions of Laurent Koscielny, the defender whom Vardy and Ighalo rate as the country's best.
It's also an opportunity for the boy born in Leyton who attended Arsenal's academy from the age of six to remind his former club of his capabilities. The reunion might be seen as a potentially embarrassing one for Arsene Wenger, but the man himself appears happy to see Afobe blossom.
"He has the qualities to integrate into a team like Bournemouth, whose game is based on movement, pace and quick football," Wenger said recently. "I must say I am very happy for Benik because he had an outstanding attitude here and I am very pleased he has done well.
"It is a good opportunity for him and I hope he will be successful there. Sometimes you have to let people go who are not completely ready for us, knowing that they could be successful. I am very happy because we have contributed to his success and I hope he will have a long, good career."
There's no reason to doubt Wenger's sincerity, but he'll surely hope that Afobe's progress is delayed for 90 minutes. After all, a goal on Sunday could be the latest damaging blow to Arsenal's title hopes. Afobe might not represent Arsenal's future, but it's a future that nevertheless looks ever more promising.