Last night, arguably for the first time in his career, Joel Campbell looked like an Arsenal player. When the transfer window closed, many were surprised to see him remain with the club. However, an Arsenal’s injury crisis has taken hold, Campbell has proved himself to be a valuable squad member.
It’s been a long wait for the Costa Rican, who first signed for the club in the summer of 2011. He spent the next three seasons out on loan—one of them with last night’s opponents, Olympiacos—before finally being granted a work permit to play in Britain. Even then, he could not find a niche in the Arsenal squad, and ended up being sent for a fourth loan spell with Villarreal.
Arsenal’s investment of time and money in Campbell’s development is now paying dividends. With the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck sidelined, he has climbed the pecking order and seized the opportunity to showcase his talent.
Speaking after the game in Greece, Arsene Wenger picked Campbell out for special praise:
Joel Campbell is a very good player who has individual skill but what I also like is that he is a real team player who fights for the team. On top of that he will get to an age where he becomes a real professional footballer. He came from Costa Rica at a very young age, went to four different clubs on loan and that made him tough. Now he gets his chance and he is getting stronger in every game.
Wenger makes a good point. When Campbell arrived from Saprissa, he had been a professional footballer for a matter of months—and in a totally different environment too. His talent was first identified by the then Costa Rica coach Ricardo La Volpe, who spotted Campbell playing with cans in the street.
It’s no surprise then that it’s taken him some time to adapt to the demands of elite football, but adapt he has. Against Olympiacos, Campbell combined a tremendous work-ethic with some moments of sublime skill. His assist for Olivier Giroud’s second goal was particularly inspired, as he held the ball up, dragged it back then played a perfect reverse pass into the Frenchman’s path.
His performances are still erratic — were his finishing more composed, he might have doubled the tally of two goals he’s collected thus far this season. However, he has shown that he has a part to play at a club of Arsenal’s size. That’s no mean feat.
For now at least, he does appear to have nudged ahead of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the queue for a first-team place. For all The Ox’s undoubted talent, he doesn’t seem to have acquired that knack of making telling contributions in the final third. The goals and assists are few and far between. Campbell’s all-round game might not be as polished as Chamberlain’s, but he seems to leave a bigger impact on the game.
No observers are arguing that Campbell ought to force his way into Arsenal’s first-choice XI. However, a gruelling campaign requires key contributions from fringe members of the squad, and on the evidence of the last few weeks that’s something Campbell is capable of providing. Whether or not that’s enough to satisfy his hunger for first-team football remains to be seen.