Yossi Benayoun arrived at Arsenal last season for a season-long loan in the final few hours of the transfer window. He did so to little applause, no fanfare and whole lot of disappointment.
Arsenal fans, having lost Nasri and Fabregas just weeks before, were expecting the arrival of someone whose quality could rival that of their departed stars. Instead they got an aging ex-Liverpool and West Ham player who had spent the entirety of the previous season out injured. To say that those fans in north London were less than impressed would have been an understatement.
Fast-forward, then, to the end of the season and Yossi Benayoun’s reputation in Arsenal could not have been more different. A slow start to the season, which included few first team opportunities, was punctuated some pleasing, if not brilliant, performances. After his debut against Dortmund, Benayoun scored his first goal for the club against Shrewsbury in the Carling Cup before captaining the side against Manchester City in the Carling Cup in November.
That he was afforded such responsibility is testament to the experience Benayoun can bring to any side. In December, his last minute goal against Aston Villa away from home gave Arsenal a much-needed victory and began to cement his reputation at The Emirates as a valuable squad member.
However, it wasn’t until the home game against Tottenham that Israel’s captain really proved his worth. Arguably his best performance in an Arsenal shirt, Benayoun put in an industrious, as well as imaginative, shift. His contribution to both attack and defence was a major factor in turning the game around from 0-2 down to 5-2 up.
Yossi ended the season in fine form scoring goals against Wolves, Norwich and West Brom as well as picking up the man of the match award in Arsenal’s final game, which helped ensure third place for The Gunners.
However, with the Israeli now 32, and an extensive squad at Arsenal, he heads back to Chelsea for the new campaign where the arrival of Eden Hazard will undoubtedly push him further down the pecking order.
That he does not necessarily warrant a place in Chelsea’s starting eleven does not detract from his value. Benayoun would be a valuable squad member for almost any top team in the league and could justifiably expect to hold down a place in the starting eleven of many Premier League clubs.
However, whether Di Matteo sees this value in Benayoun is another matter. At 32, Yossi cannot afford to spend another year at Chelsea in which he doesn’t play. Some may point to the departure of Salomon Kalou as an indication that there is room for him, and you could argue that Benayoun’s defensive strengths as a midfielder tie in well to how we saw Chelsea play at the end of last season, yet it is still a risk for a player who is, realistically, approaching the final year in which his body will allow him to perform at a genuinely high level.
It has been argued that he is already beyond this point; however, having watched him all season at Arsenal it is clear that is not the case. Benayoun’s qualities have always been more centred on his agility, his movement off the ball and his intelligent use of possession – none of these have diminished. His acceleration and general pace may begin to suffer yet Arsenal fans thought that in September last year and were proved wrong.
The myth of being an injury prone player was dispelled at Arsenal, as were suggestions that he was no longer a worthwhile member of a squad. He will undoubtedly have offers from smaller clubs providing he is happy to reduce his wages; the question now stands of whether he values a higher salary or the opportunity to play on a regular basis.
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