The Ones That Got Away, Arsenal Edition

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Here’s a question for you; apart from the obvious that they are all great footballers what do Luis Suarez, Gianluigi Buffon, Paul Pogba, Yaya Touré, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, N’Golo Kante, Gerard Piqué, Dimitri Payet, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Didier Drogba all have in common?

All of them to a differing degree could have become Arsenal players during the reign of Arsene Wenger, first at Highbury and then at the Emirates.

Arsenal’s much-documented intransigence and inflexibility in transfer negotiations has on occasions brought home the bacon (Nicholas Anelka and Cesc Fabregas) but more often than not it is a respect for the finances of the club and his deep sense of responsibility that cost them dear.

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When it comes to missing out on signing top foreign players, Arsenal’s failure to entice the then 18-year-old Samuel Chukwueze to the Emirates from the Nigerian Diamond Academy will probably not be seen as the biggest missed opportunity in Arsene Wenger’s chequered transfer dealing history; not yet, anyway, but watch this space.

The winger had first come to the Gunners’ – and many other top European clubs – attention in 2015 after helping his country win the Under 17 World Cup. At that point in time, Arsenal could have secured his services for the grand total of £2.5m, a figure that would have included all performance-related add-ons. An initial fee of £1.5m plus £500,000 when he broke into the first team and then a final £500,000 when he made his international debut.

In the end they couldn’t agree on the payment terms and Villarreal stepped in to snap him up on a five-year deal in September last year.

After some excellent performances with the Villarreal B side the Segunda B – the third tier of Spanish football – Chukwuese has this season earned a place in the first team squad. He made his debut in the Submarine’s Europa league match against Rangers before scoring in the club’s Copa del Rey 3-3 draw at Almeria.

His league debut came on 5 November 2018, where he played the full 90-minutes in a 1–1 home draw against Levante. The following week he scored Villarreal’s opening goal in their 2-2 draw at Rayo Vallecano.

This form hasn’t gone unnoticed and he has now been called up to the Super Eagles squad by Nigeria coach, Gernot Rohr for their upcoming 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) qualifier against the Bafana Bafana of South Africa.

Rohr says of him:  “Chukwueze has a good left foot‚ is quick‚ has a low centre of gravity‚ which gives him a very good balance‚ and can deliver and score. We need a player like him to give us balance in attack and he can also play through the middle.”

He is, I would say, a skilful dribbler and an accomplished playmaker. Many believe he is the natural replacement in the Nigerian side for Victor Moses who retired from the Super Eagles.

He is described by many as the new Arjen Robben, quite the comparison. Back in June, in a bid to guarantee his services, they offered fresh terms ‎which included a buy out clause of €10m, this just highlights how highly they rate him.

But with many clubs reportedly making inquiries about his availability it soon became clear that they would have to start fresh negotiations with the player, sooner rather than later. A large increase in the buy out clause was a priority if they were to keep unwelcome advances for the player at bay.

Arsenal may well resume their interest; suffice to say it would take considerably more than £2.5m to bring the precocious Samuel to the Emirates at the second attempt.

But now with a relatively new team dealing with the transfer side of the business, soon to be flush with cash following a £300m five season shirt deal with Adidas, this is an Arsenal that will probably be much more pro-active on the market as they cast avaricious glances across the channel at Lille’s 23-year-old striker, Nicolas Pepe who is currently taking the Ligue One by storm.

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Pepe has been on the club’s radar for some time now but following Danny Welbeck’s dreadful injury, interest could intensify as they go looking for a replacement.

Supremely skilful, agile, explosive and ‘whippet’ fast, Pepe would more than fit the bill. As good at creating goals as he is scoring them he has been likened to a combination of Wilfried Zaha and Ousmane Dembele.

His club Lille currently sit in second place in Ligue One and Pepe with eight goals and seven assists in 13 matches this season is primarily the reason why.

He was valued around €30m at the start of the season but following his rich vein of form, the French media now price him closer to €50m (£45m).

He has impressed ever since making the move to Lille from Angers in the summer of 2017 where he signed for a reported €12m (£10m), a transfer fee that with each game is looking more and more like a bargain.

A career in the lower leagues of French football led to a move to Angers in 2013 where he made his professional debut in November 2014.  He spent a year in the B team before being loaned out to US Orleans to hone his skills.

His form on his return earned him a place in the first team, selection for the Ivory Coast national side and then a move to Lille in the summer of 2017.

As his performances improved, the orderly queue to secure his services has grown with the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Barcelona all rumoured to be more than interested.

For the time being Lille are being bullish about their young talent no doubt desperate to ensure they can hold on to him, certainly long enough to be able to secure for themselves a place in next season’s Champions League.

Lille manager Christophe Galtier said of him: “Nicolas has become an intransferable player. I know that the president wants to keep him all season, and Nicholas also wants to stay for the full season.”

After then, reality and history show us that Lille, who have a history of bringing on some wonderful players (Eden Hazard for one) before moving them on to both the players’ and the club’s benefit, will probably look at cashing in on their prize asset, probably in the summer window.

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About Author

Guillem has written for major newspapers in Spain and England, featured as a pundit on Sky Sports and BBC, and co-wrote with Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino, Brave New World: Inside Pochettino's Spurs. He has also written other award-winning books on Cristiano Ronaldo, Pep Guardiola and Lionel Messi.

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