Since his inclusion on the bench in Turkey last Tuesday, there's been a growing group of Arsenal supporters calling for Chuba Akpom to receive playing time in the first team. His goalscoring exploits at the U21 level, as well as his soon-expiring contract (an earlier version of this post failed to clarify that Akpom's current contract expires this summer), have been touted as reasons why he deserves a chance over everyone's favorite scapegoat, Yaya Sanogo. While it's popular to criticize Wenger these days, even after wins, he knows what he's doing in this particular situation.
The main thrust of the pro-Akpom argument is that he is scoring goals for fun and Sanogo, well, is not. And yes, Akpom's goalscoring record for the U21 side this season is outstanding. 9 goals in 8 games! That's Messi-esque!
It's important to remember that, due to our U21 team's disappointing season last year, Arsenal U21s play in the second division of the U21 Premier League. That means instead of facing off against the top academies of Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Southampton, et al., Arsenal faces off against the likes of Derby, Brighton, and Bolton. Only 5 of the 12 teams in the second division hail from current Premier League clubs. Not only is Akpom doing this at the U21 level, he's doing it at the Championship level of English U21 football.
It is important to also remember that Yaya Sanogo bangs in goals in U21 action as well. He's scored 5 in 8 appearances for France U21s. He was also the top scorer for the France U20 side that won the U20 World Cup last year, netting 4 times throughout the course of the tournament.
"Oh," you begin to counter, "but have you seen him for Arsenal? There's a reason I cleverly call him 'Sanogoal!'" This is where I admit, yeah, Sanogo should score more. Sometimes, his misses are comical. That said, Akpom is not exactly devoid of profligacy.
As someone who has watched Akpom play as much as someone can without going in-person to the usually non-televised youth matches, I can attest to the fact Akpom is quite wasteful as well. Playing in front of the talented attacking triumvirate of Daniel Crowley, Gedion Zelalem, and Alex Iwobi, with further midfield support from rising star cum first-team bench stalwart, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Akpom has no shortage of excellent chances created for him to pounce on.
Akpom has converted his fair share, as shown by his tally, but he should have done much better on many others. It's fair to question whether, playing against stronger competition, if he would get as many goal-scoring chances and if he would convert the ones he gets.
Akpom's only real experience above the U21 level is two loan spells at Brentford and Coventry City, both League One (reminder: English football's third tier) sides. In both of those loan spells, in a total of 10 appearances, Akpom managed no goals. Sanogo has proven he can get into good goal-scoring positions at a top level, and has had goal-scoring success both in Ligue Two and Ligue One in France.
Furthermore, Sanogo's ability to hold up the ball and provide service to Arsenal's other attackers are attributes that Akpom simply does not have at this time. Akpom is guilty of being too selfish, a fine line to walk for a striker, and Arsene clearly wants his attacking players to be well-rounded team players. There's no question that while he may not have scored many goals for Arsenal, he has been an influence in big matches, particularly in his debut against Bayern Munich and the FA Cup final against Hull City. While Akpom certainly possesses the traits to be more than a poacher, goal-scorer, he has not yet displayed the level of selflessness Wenger expects out of his attackers.
None of this should be construed as negative towards Akpom. The kid is only 19, after all, and he has a great future ahead of him. What would benefit him most right now is not an Arsenal first team spot, but rather a loan for a Championship side that can give him regular playing time. He might even benefit from an overseas loan, though Arsenal have been reticent to send their English prospects to the continent.
The level that Arsenal U21s play at simply is not helping his development anymore, something I harp on nearly every U21 match write-up. He would be far better off being challenged on a loan spell. While he may not have done well at Coventry City, he was clearly a different and better player after his return. He's got pace, trickery, and goal scoring ability that could blossom into him being a first team player at Arsenal in a couple of years.
If Akpom leaves because he got no playing time in a crowded striking corps, that's his decision. He would certainly be missed. That said, Wenger certainly knows more than we do on this point. We should not hold our season hostage to any perceived demands of a talented youth prospect.
Honestly, the growing debate has nothing to do with the merits of the two young strikers. Sanogo will always carry with him the baggage of being the only striker Arsenal brought in during the Summer of Suarez. He ticked all the biggest Arsene meme boxes: young, French, and cheap. He was never going to be evaluated fairly. (Let's not forget Honigstein naming him the worst signing in the EPL last summer!)
Sanogo is a convenient young scapegoat at the moment, despite Arsenal being undefeated in matches in which he starts, outside of the Bayern UCL tie in which he played very well. The baggage of his signing, plus the fallacy of "the grass is always greener", creates a strong force which might lead someone to push for Sanogo to be put out to pasture. In this instance, Arsenal fans need to wait until that grass has been fertilized just a bit more.