When Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger waited until the 86th minute before introducing Joel Campbell at 2-3 down at home against Olympiakos in the Champions League in September, one could have been forgiven for assuming that the Costa Rica international had no future at the Emirates Stadium.
After all, Campbell was the only forward player whom Wenger had available on the substitutes’ bench and defeat against the Greek side, two weeks after going down 2-1 at Dinamo Zagreb, stood to destroy Arsenal’s hopes of progressing into the last-16. It was revealing of just how little faith the manager had in Campbell’s ability, therefore, that he waited until the final four-minutes of normal-time before introducing him.
As it turned out, of course, Arsenal managed to qualify for the knock-out stages of the Champions League even after the Olympiakos defeat, but perhaps even more remarkable than the Gunners’ feat of escapology in Europe has been the pace of Campbell’s development into a regular first-team starter.
Arsenal’s 3-3 draw at Anfield on Wednesday night arguably marked the high-point of Campbell’s career in North London.
The 23-year-old was selected ahead of the more experienced Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to start on the right of Arsenal’s midfield, and he played a part in assisting two goals at the same time as effectively counteracting the threat posed by Liverpool’s attacking left-back, Alberto Moreno.
At 0-1 down, Campbell displayed exceptional close-control, positional-awareness and ball-playing technique in turning away from two defenders, 25 yards out from the Liverpool goal before sliding Aaron Ramsey through for Arsenal’s first equalizer.
At the start of the second-half, it was another probing Campbell pass into the Liverpool area which caused the ball to break for Olivier Giroud who fired the visitors into a 2-3 lead, and Opta stats also record the Costa Rican as having made five tackles, six ball-recoveries, and 16 accurate passes in his 75-minutes on the pitch.
Campbell was quite simply outstanding at Anfield, and that performance came only four days after he had opened Arsenal’s scoring at 0-1 down in their 3-1 FA Cup defeat of Sunderland last weekend. On current form, it would be a shock were the Costa Rican not to start for the Gunners away at Stoke on Sunday, even if Chilean winger Alexis Sanchez is determined fit for selection.
Few could have foreseen this circumstance in the aftermath of the Olympiakos defeat, not least owing to the fact that Campbell had spent three of his first four seasons after signing for Arsenal from Saprissa in August, 2011 away on loan at Lorient, Real Betis and Olympiakos. Indeed, even after Campbell’s strong showing with Costa Rica at the 2014 World Cup persuaded Wenger to register him in the Arsenal first-team for the 2014/15 campaign, he made only four Premier League appearances (all as a substitute) and spent the second-half of the season on loan at Villarreal where he managed just one goal in 16 appearances.
In this context, many Arsenal fans assumed that Campbell would leave permanently during pre-season, and he may well have been sold had the club received an offer in line with his valuation. The fact that the Costa Rican had only started in the League Cup prior the Olympiakos defeat was testament to the extent to which his Arsenal career had stalled; however, injuries sustained by Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain at Sheffield Wednesday (and later by Sanchez at Norwich) afforded the wide-player what Wenger termed a “now or never” chance in the first-team.
He has taken it.
After netting Arsenal’s third in a 0-3 win at Swansea on the occasion of his first Premier League start on 31 October, Campbell has started in 10 of Arsenal’s subsequent 14 matches in all competitions, registering three assists and two goals. He played a crucial role in helping the Gunners to win 0-3 away at Olympiakos at the start of December in order to progress in the Champions League and has displayed a relentless defensive work ethic, which has helped Hector Bellerin to flourish at right-back.
On current form both Oxlade-Chamberlain and Walcott will be hard-pressed to displace Campbell on the right-hand side of the Arsenal attack, and just a year after Francis Coquelin revived his Arsenal career from the brink of collapse, Campbell looks to have achieved a comparable feat.
[Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images]