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By James Cunliffe
Saturday, February 22, 2014
Arsene Wenger believes Yaya Sanogo could have the same impact as Nicolas Anelka when he burst onto the scene at Arsenal 17 years ago.
Despite playing just nine minutes of Premier League football, the 21-year-old striker made a surprise full Champions League debut in Wednesday’s 2-0 defeat to Bayern Munich, getting selected ahead of top scorer Olivier Giroud and German international Lukas Podolski, who were both unused substitutes.
Wenger introduced Anelka as a 17-year-old at the tail end of the 1996-97 season, in the place of injured Ian Wright, and the following campaign he fired nine goals in 40 appearances, including one in the FA Cup final as the north Londoners won the double. He was the club’s top scorer in the 1998-99 season but left that summer for Real Madrid in a £22million switch.
“There’s the potential there,” the Arsenal chief said of Sanogo in comparison to his former charge.
“When I started Anelka everybody said ‘why do you play Anelka? Why don’t you buy a striker?’
“We won the championship with him.
“At some stage when you feel they are ready, they play.”
“He has a lot to do because we’ve had some great strikers here. Will he be at that level? I don’t know.
“He looked not out of place in the two games he played.”
Sango, who was signed on a free from Auxerre in the summer, made an impressive full debut in the 2-1 FA Cup fifth round victory over Liverpool last week but will not play in today’s Premier League visit of Sunderland, with Wenger choosing to rest him.
However, the manager is surprised that the youngster’s involvement has been called into question at all.
“This boy is world champion of the under-20s [with France],” the Gunners boss said, adding: “If he was an English centre forward who is a world champion you would not ask me this question. That’s as simple as that.”
He added: “I believe, upfront, it’s not the experience that decides. At the back it’s different but upfront it’s an instinctive job.
“Experience helps a little bit but belief and confidence are qualities that are more important than experience.”
Wenger revealed that it was on New Year’s Day was the moment he became convinced that Sanogo could cut it as an Arsenal player after he returned from four months of strength and conditioning training, which effectively saw him transform from a boy to a man.
“In pre-season I took him with me [on the tour of Asia] and saw that he was not ready on the strength side, so we decided to take him out completely and try to build him up for four months – two months in France and two months with us.
“When he came back on the first of January, I saw that he was a different animal.”
He added: “He is very ambitious, believes in his quality, is very passionate and naturally he has a great desire. You saw that in the [Bayern] game – naturally he was ready for a fight.
“He’s a similar shape to Giroud but you feel there is a lot more to come out of him.”
Wenger also explained how Sanogo came to his attention, saying: “When I met him first he had not played - he was out for two and a half years.
“At 16 years of age he was a very promising striker. He started to play a little bit in Auxerre last year and I got alerted by [Arsenal scout Gilles] Grimandi that he was playing again, I sent him to watch him and he said it could be interesting.
“When I met him [Sanogo] and had a long chat with him about what happened to him and I decided to take him.
“He called me back and told me ‘I will join you’. He had one or two more offers in France but I knew that it was a building process of six months.”
Despite picking him in the last two games, Wenger is reluctant to predict how much Sanogo might feature in the final three months of the season, with the Gunners still fighting for silverware on three fronts.
“Certainly I will not play him [against Sunderland] because he has just come out of two big battles,” the manager said.
“We’ll see how he recovers and progresses. He has a lot of improvement to do but you have to be open minded – if he does well he will play [in the last three months], if he doesn’t’ do well, he won’t play.”
After some much-publicised off-the-field problems and his European demotion to the substitutes’ bench, Giroud could return for today’s clash with Sunderland.
Asked if the former Montpellier man’s head is in the right place, Wenger confidently said: “Yeah. He’s highly focused.”
The forward’s form has also been called into question in recent weeks, with the number of games he’s had to play as Arsenal’s main striker appearing to be catching up with him and Wenger admitted that the striker has seemed “less sharp” physically.
But the manager said: “He’ll bounce back. I don’t worry for Giroud.
“He’s a great player and a great fighter as well.
“In the success we’ve had until now in the season he’s certainly played a big part in it.
“The same people who ask me, ‘why did he not play [against Bayern]?’ are the same people that say ‘why do you never rest Giroud?’
“It’s part of the job to decided who plays but it’s debatable every time. I have to live with that. I make my decisions with my conscience and I just think about how I can win the next game.”