Football Features

The active players Arsenal were (probably) wrong to let go

By Ben Green

Published: 17:00, 13 January 2021

Arsenal has borne witness to some of world football’s finest talent over the years, but the elite level is a harsh terrain — some flourish while others falter.

And few clubs have embodied this sink-or-swim environment more than those at the top of the food chain, but Arsenal have often been a bastion of development amidst the avaricious nature of modern football, with former boss Arsene Wenger not averse to cultivating young talent.

That said, some have not made the grade in north London despite their discernible talent, while others – not necessarily youth – have failed to make the requisite impact to cement a consistent starting berth.

However, that has not stopped them strutting their stuff elsewhere and thriving on the big stage, so were their departures perhaps premature?

Well, given their form in recent years and Arsenal’s need in certain positions, here are 10 players the club definitely let go way too soon.

1. Serge Gnabry

Sold to: Werder Bremen

Fee: £5m

Current club: Bayern Munich

Signed from Stuttgart in 2011, Gnabry burst onto the scene and immediately excited the Arsenal faithful with his combination of lightning-quick pace and twinkle-toed feet, becoming Arsenal’s second-youngest player to make his league debut after Jack Wilshere.

His rapid development saw him nominated for the 2013 Golden Boy Award, but a serious knee injury hampered his progress, and after a failed loan move to West Brom upon his return, he was sold to Werder Bremen, where he made an instant impact before joining German giants Bayern Munich.

Since relocating to Bavaria, Gnabry has gone from strength to strength, and he returned to north London last season to remind Arsenal fans exactly what they’re missing out on. The 25-year-old netted four goals in a 7-2 win over Tottenham en route to an historic Champions League triumph in August.

2. Wojciech Szczesny

Sold to: Juventus

Fee: £10m

Current club: Juventus

Arsenal have a shrewd policy of recruiting young overseas talent, and Szczesny was tipped to become Arsenal’s undisputed No.1 for decades when he joined from Legia Warsaw in 2006.

The 30-year-old proved a safe pair of hands for the Gunners after being promoted to the first-team but after a few sporadic injuries, some costly errors in big games, and the eventual arrival of Petr Cech, the Pole departed for Italian football – first on a two-year loan move to Roma, before signing permanently for Juventus.

Not even his successful two-year spell in the Eternal City could save Szczesny’s Arsenal career, and having initially joined the Old Lady as an understudy to Gianluigi Buffon, he has since forged a great career for himself in Turin.

3. Lukasz Fabianski

Sold to: Swansea City

Fee: Free transfer

Current club: West Ham

Dubbed ‘Flappyhandski’ by some sectors of the Arsenal fanbase, the 35-year-old has obliterated that moniker in recent seasons with his exceptional form between the sticks for both Swansea and, now, West Ham.

Another to hail from the Legia Warsaw academy, Fabianski never truly staked a claim in the starting XI during his seven-year tenure at Arsenal, but since leaving, he has excelled, winning West Ham’s ‘Hammer of the Year’ award in 2018/19.

Fabianski made more saves (149) than any other Premier League goalkeeper during that season and fully deserved his accolade. The proceeding two years have done nothing to tarnish his burgeoning reputation as a formidable presence in goal.

4. Carlos Vela

Sold to: Real Sociedad

Fee: £3m

Current club: Los Angeles FC

The name ‘Vela’ should be whispered softly in north London as the Mexican often evokes memories of what might have been, such was his talent and potential when he joined the club as a prodigiously talented tyro in 2005.

He failed to fulfil his potential in the capital but he has since thrived with Real Sociedad in La Liga, and now in Major League Soccer, but he was close to joining Barcelona in January 2019, so clearly his undoubted talent is still recognised globally.

The Mexican is now one of the stars across the Atlantic having notched 62 goals in just 80 appearance for Los Angeles FC, while he also delivered Supporters’ Shield success in 2019.

5. Jeff Reine-Adelaide

Sold to: Angers

Fee: £2.7m

Current club: Nice (on loan from Lyon)

Rated highly by former coach and compatriot Arsene Wenger, Reine-Adelaide left the club in search of more first-team opportunities in 2018, becoming a regular component of Angers’ starting XI as a result.

The take-on-king proved an excellent acquisition for the French outfit and, as a result, he made a £23m move to Lyon the following year, and although Arsenal received £5m of that, they’d probably have preferred Reine-Adelaide in their squad.

He has since been on the move again, joining Nice on loan for the season with a €25m option to buy.

6. Santi Cazorla

Sold to: Villarreal

Fee: Free transfer

Current club: Al Sadd

After a lengthy injury, not many were expecting an ageing Cazorla to return to his best, but that is exactly what the diminutive playmaker has done, proving as lethal as ever with his eloquent movement and instinctive passing, first in the province of Castellon, and now under Xavi in Qatar.

He managed a quite ridiculous 14 direct contributions during his return to La Liga in 2018/19 and followed that up with 20 last season (11 goals, nine assists). He is now doing the business in Doha at 36, but make no mistake, his synthesis of experience and mesmeric footwork would have provided invaluable depth for Arsenal over the past few years.

7. Donyell Malen

Sold to: PSV Eindhoven

Fee: Undisclosed

Current club: PSV Eindhoven

Arsenal thought they’d snagged themselves a wonderkid when they brought Donyell Malen from Ajax at just 16 years old but now, six years later, he’s tearing it up with PSV.

The young forward has bagged 43 goals in 94 games for the Eredivisie giants and is now a fully-fledged international for the Netherlands, amassing six caps so far.

Another classic Arsenal blunder.

8. Oguzhan Ozyakup

Sold to: Besiktas

Fee: £500,000

Current club: Besiktas

Ozyakup has helped guide Besiktas to two titles since signing in 2012 and is consistently linked with a move back to the Premier League, such is his midfield expertise.

The Turkey international was never really given time to grow at Arsenal, and he is said to possess “Zinedine Zidane-like” qualities, such are his lung-busting runs from box-to-box and passing range — oh how Arsenal could do with some of that magic.

9. Ismael Bennacer

Sold to: Empoli

Fee: £900k

Current club: AC Milan

Like so many before him, Ismael Bennacer is another youngster whose only chance in the Arsenal first team came during League Cup action, playing just once.

He was sold to Empoli for just £900k in 2017 and helped the club earn promotion to Serie A in his first season. They were relegated at the first attempt but it certainly wasn’t for the lack of trying on Bennacer’s part, with the Algeria international making more passes (1903) than any of his teammates and registering the second-highest number of assists (5).

He has since earned a move to AC Milan, where his central midfield partnership with Franck Kessie has catapulted the Rossoneri back into the mix for a decade-long Scudetto wait. Stefano Pioli’s side currently lead the way in Serie A, and Bennacer has been a keystone of that ascent.

10. Yunus Musah

Sold to: Valencia

Fee: Undisclosed

Current club: Valencia

Off the field Valencia have been in freefall, with a mass exodus of star players taking shape over the summer, but that cull has largely facilitated the emergence of teenage sensation Yunus Musah, who has burst onto the scene this campaign and thrust Los Che back into the limelight.

At just 18, the New York-born midfielder has been entrusted with regular first-team responsibilities, featuring 17 times in La Liga this season, which sees him second only to Barcelona wonderkid Pedri for most minutes in the division by a teenager. In fact, across Europe’s top five leagues, he is one of only seven teenagers to have amassed more than 1000 minutes — Bukayo Saka being the only Premier League teenager to achieve that feat (1236).

It is not yet clear where Musah’s allegiances lie at international level, having featured for England at youth level but picked up two senior caps for the United States. He remains eligible for England until he plays two more matches for the USMNT; and he would add considerable ‘Gareth Bale-esque’ qualities to the Three Lions if his latest goal is anything to go by…