Monday, November 19, 2007

Could Carlos Vela be Arsenal's Next Henry?

Arsenal are, without a doubt, one of the offensive powerhouses of English football despite having lost talismanic striker Thierry Henry to Barcelona during the summer.

The Gunners are currently on top of the Premier League and its goalscoring charts, having notched up 27 goals in 12 league matches. Outside of the Premier League, Arsenal have scored 19 goals in seven outings, including a 7-0 drubbing of Slavia Prague at the Emirates.

Arsene Wenger has three quality forwards (Theo Walcott, Eduardo, and Nicklas Bendtner) at his disposal in addition to the impressive first-choice strike force of Robin van Persie and Emmanuel Adebayor. Nonetheless, the Arsenal manager is reportedly bringing young Mexican striker Carlos Vela back from a loan spell at Osasuna this January, now that the youngster has cleared up issues with his work permits.

What could another eighteen year-old possibly add to Arsenal’s game?

To answer that question, let’s look back to the 2003/04 season. Arsenal fans will remember the season as the one in which the Gunners went undefeated in the Premiership, finishing 11 points clear of their nearest rivals, Chelsea. Anyone remember the name of our top scorer?

The great Thierry Henry scored 30 Premier League goals that season. That’s one and a half times as many as Didier Drogba scored last year to win last season’s golden boot. Last season the injury-ridden Frenchman only managed 10 goals, one behind Arsenal’s top-scorer, another injury-plagued player, Robin van Persie.

Now don’t get me wrong, Van Persie is a great player. He has a powerful left foot, and his finishing is excellent. He could feasibly win this season’s golden boot and, at 24, the Dutchman still has quite a future ahead of him.

But can he fill the void left by Henry’s departure? The unfortunate truth is that it’s unlikely.

That’s where Vela comes in. The Mexican wunderkind is one of the most prodigious talents in Europe. Vela won the golden boot and player of the tournament at the U17 World Cup, and has already spent a full season playing first team football, making 31 starts (and scoring eight times) with UD Salamanca in the Spanish Segunda Division. He has also featured twice for the senior Mexican national team, scoring in a 3-2 loss to Guatemala.

Clearly he has quite a pedigree for a youngster. But what makes him stand out from the rest and why might he become the next Henry?

First of all, he has the talent. His intelligence and pace are unrivaled by anyone his age and his first touch, dribbling ability and finishing technique are all excellent. He also has a huge amount of first-team experience for such a young player, which will only add to his usefulness once he arrives in Britain.

What’s most important though, is that he fits right in to the Arsenal mould. His first goal for Osasuna saw the young Mexican play the ball to a teammate before running into space to pick it up again a few yards outside the penalty box. Upon receiving the return pass he seamlessly integrated the ball into his stride, showing excellent close control before finishing with his left foot on the edge of the 18 yard box. The finish was Henry-esque, flying past the keeper into the roof of the net. The way Vela’s qualities were tailor-made to Arsenal was uncanny.

We will have to wait quite a while until we see Vela nail down a first-team spot under Arsene Wenger, and Arsenal will continue scoring goals with the current form of Alex Hleb and Cesc Fabregas complementing our forwards, perhaps eventually winning the Premier League or Champions League.

But when Vela does come of age, which may be sooner than most people think, he might provide 20 or 30 goals a season. And when that rings true, we might have on our hands a repeat of the unthinkable - a second undefeated season.