It would have been easy to get carried away with the promise held by Carlos Vela back in 2006 when Arsenal signed the young Mexican. It wasn’t just the obvious talent he displayed and the many reports of a potential glowing career that raised interest; the manner in which his signing came about – Arsenal representatives reportedly sweet talking Vela’s father into the deal in a queue at a hot dog stand – also gave evidence that clubs really would attempt anything to beat others to a signature.
But like many of the failed mini projects of that specific youth era under Arsene Wenger, Vela was cast to the side and eventually shipped out: there was nothing more the French manager could do to prove that the striker would be of great use to Arsenal in their quest for future glory.
The problem with Vela at Arsenal is that we never really saw what he could do. For reasons that remain unknown, the striker wasn’t offered the same opportunities that others were, despite his talent surpassing regulars in the first-team. Vela’s time in north London will never give an accurate representation of what he can really do on a pitch, while many would have taken their frustrations and pushed them over the edge, dismissing the player as one of those cheap punts that never really had legs to succeed. Were those performances in La Liga during his three-year loan spell really just a flash in the pan?
Vela’s failure to get a regular run in the Arsenal team pushed him out the door for domestic loans, and yet he still failed to make an impression at West Brom during his half-season at the Hawthorns.
One of the most obvious factors in all of this is that Vela never really felt wanted, he never really had a club he could call home. After the necessary loan spells in Spain for his work permit, would it ever really be possible for him to view Arsenal as his true parent club? After all, and despite his clear talent, he hardly amassed anywhere near a respectable number of appearances in Premier League competition.
It didn’t mean Vela wasn’t good enough to be a success at Arsenal, even though his slight frame might have suggested otherwise. It would, however, simply mean that another club on the continent would benefit greatly from Arsenal losing their patience. At Real Sociedad, Vela has been wonderful to watch.
And here’s the thing: I’m not about to paint Vela as a figure who is the superstar Arsenal currently need or have missed out on; he’s extremely unlikely to join one of the giants of European football in the next six months, while images of him rifling in 30 goals a season are even more out of reach.
What his time at Sociedad can be viewed as, however, is a chance at a new beginning. It was beneficial for the player’s development that the Basque club bought Vela following his initial loan. It was vitally important that the striker was given a settled environment where he could be at ease and work to regain his form.
The thing about Sociedad is that it’s a stepping stone for players like Vela, as well as team-mate Antoine Griezmann. Both are good enough to play for bigger clubs in Spain and elsewhere in Europe, but both forwards have been offered a platform to showcase what they’re capable of. At the moment, they’re playing good football in an environment that works for them.
At the Anoeta, Vela has formed a very effective attacking midfield combination with Griezmann, Chori Castro and club captain Xabi Prieto. It’s about good football, interchanging of roles, taking up responsibilities for the good of the team at both ends of the pitch; and that more than anything has been hugely important for Vela’s rediscovery of form.
Again, I’m not going to talk up Vela as one of the diamonds of Spanish football and one who could make a great impact in the Premier League. Instead, it’s the joy of watching a very talented footballer back on track and enjoying the game. There’s something a little bit different in the way he celebrates his goals now, where he will be part of the greater result come the end of the season. At Arsenal, and during those appearances in the League Cup, Vela was playing for himself, doing what he could to force his way into Wenger’s plans for the first-team in the Premier League and Champions League. At the moment, Sociedad are one point behind a rejuvenated Valencia and could very well make a push for one of the Europa League spots.
At this stage in the season, Vela has eight goals and four assists, leaving him well on course to equal or better his total of 12 and seven last season. He’s once again showing his technique, blistering pace and the ability to dazzle his way past opposition defenders. Vela has always been a good dribbler with plenty in his locker to beat defenders on the flanks, however at Arsenal he was clearly bereft of confidence in himself and from those on the bench.
Not taking anything away from Sociedad, Vela is better than his current club. He will play a notable role in their push for European football, which is clearly up for grabs this season. But beyond that, he is good enough to take a few steps up the ladder in La Liga. A Champions League team perhaps, certainly one looking for a versatile forward who knows how to play the hard working possession game. More than anything, Vela just needed a team to call his own.