It was a decision that left so many baffled. Yaya Sanogo named in the Arsenal starting line-up to face European champions Bayern Munich in arguably the team's biggest game of the season so far. A youngster whose Premier League experience has been limited to a 10-minute run-out at Fulham six months ago, preferred to top scorer Olivier Giroud. It wouldn't be too mischievous to suggest some casual Gunners fans around the globe wouldn't have even recognised their striker.
Suddenly you could sense the panic on social media. Did this raise bigger questions about Arsenal's work in the January transfer window? This was an occasion for an experienced head not a green newcomer? But the misgivings soon gave way to excitement within the stadium. Despite the 2-0 defeat, Sanogo delivered an encouraging performance that suggests he could be rather more than an underwhelming understudy to his more renowned compatriot Giroud.
Indeed, perhaps the consternation was overstated. After all, Sanogo's absence from the team has not been due to a lack of enthusiasm for his talents from manager Arsene Wenger. "He is a traditional number nine, but he's a technical player as well," said Wenger in the summer. "He uses his body well, has a good presence in the box and has the nose to know where to be on the pitch. The ball always goes to him. He can be a prolific goal-scorer and a huge talent."
Only a serious back injury sustained in September has caused the impact to be delayed. Sanogo returned to fitness just this month. The 21-year-old - that's older than Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, by the way - showed enough in the weekend FA Cup win over Liverpool to convince Wenger of his suitability for this particular job. "Considering the intensity of the game, he was absolutely excellent," he said of that performance. "He was always in the game. He was a handful for them."
There was plenty of evidence against Bayern of the physical threat that Sanogo can provide. "The centre-backs have started poorly," said Gary Neville on co-commentary duty for Sky Sports. But how much of that was due to the powerful striker? Sanogo won three aerial duels in the first 15 minutes - nobody else managed more than one. In those early stages, he was more than a match for a Bayern defence that has conceded just two goals in their last 10 Bundesliga games.
|Arsenal v Bayern Munich|
|Player||Team||Aerial Duels Won|
|Javi Martinez||Bayern Munich||6|
His hold-up play was creditable too. His pass completion rate was nothing to get excited about but the role was a tricky one with support not always obvious. More significant was the fact that he got himself involved, showing that quality mentioned by Wenger - the ability to find the ball. In that first half, Sanogo had more touches inside the box than opposite number Mario Mandzukic - a reputed January target for the Gunners - and completed seven passes to the Croat's two.
Then there was his harrying back to pressure Bayern, occupying clever positions between the defenders. Sanogo came up with three interceptions in the first half and that was three times as many as any other player on either side. In one particularly impressive moment, he retrieved the ball and neatly turned away from two men before sending Oxlade-Chamberlain through on goal only for Manuel Neuer to just get to David Alaba's subsequent backpass first.
Of course, what was missing from all these efforts was a goal. But at least there was some proof of the menace shown in scoring 10 goals for Auxerre last season as well as four for France in their Under-20 World Cup triumph in the summer. Having not had a shot on target for Arsenal in three games prior to Wednesday night, it took just seven minutes for Sanogo to test Neuer with a measured effort. His three shots were more than any other Arsenal player on the night.
Things became rather more difficult for the striker in the second half with Arsenal reduced to chasing the ball following Wojciech Szczesny's sending off. Forced into a lone role in attack as Arsenal defended with 10 men and with the manager's substitution options limited after being forced into two first-half changes, it was a huge ask for a player working his way back to full fitness. At least the booking picked up for charging down Neuer was indicative of his ongoing efforts.
It was certainly enough to earn the praise of his manager. "I think he's one of the satisfactions tonight," Wenger told Sky Sports in his post-match interview. "He worked hard, put in total commitment and showed some quality." But it's a comment from the Arsenal boss back in the summer that really hits home after this performance. "For me it will take six months or so of work before we really see what he can do." On the biggest of stages, Arsenal fans finally got a glimpse.