When Arsenal acquired the services of Mexican striker Carlos Vela in November 2005, it was the prize in a race against a number of big European clubs also trailing the teenager who had won the Golden Boot in 2005 FIFA U-17 World Championship. A player of clearly outstanding potential, the £125,000 laid out to Vela’s Mexican club, Guadalajara looked to be a sound investment. Even the codicil that required, a further £425,000 to be added after 50 first team games hardly suggested they had overpaid. As things transpired though, some Gooners may argue that it may have been better leaving the money in the bank.
As soon as Vela landed with the club, problems arose, although it’s difficult to believe that Arsenal were not aware of the complications. Due to the player’s age and lack of experience, work permit conditions prevented him playing in England, and Vela was hastily loaned out to Celta Vigo for the remainder of the 2005-06 season, although he never played a first team game for the Galician club. Given Vela was still a teenager in a new country, despite the language barrier being removed by his Spanish sortie, being plunged into the top-tier of a new league is akin to being thrown into the deep end of a swimming pool and for the following season, the Gunners selected a much shallower end, sending Vela to Salamanca in Spain’s Segunda División. Eight goals in 33 games suggested that he had found his feet, and Arsenal thought it was, again, time to test their protégé in a higher league.
A further loan, this time with Primera División outfit Osasuna, sent Vela to Pamplona, home of the famous Bull Run, but it was the Mexican who found himself on the horns of a dilemma. The 2007-08 season again saw him playing regularly, appearing 33 times in La Liga fixtures, but the goal return of a mere three strikes suggested there was still work to be done to develop the player’s, so far undiscovered, talents.
Nevertheless, following his time in Spain, the grant of a work permit in May 2008 gave Arsenal the opportunity to return him to the club and, with two fairly complete seasons behind him, establish whether any meaningful return on the investment laid out in his purchase was likely to accrue. An early substitute debut in a Premier League game late in August illustrated an apparent faith in Vela by Gunners manager, Arsène Wenger, and when his first full game brought a hat-trick in a six goal League Cup romp against Sheffield United, it looked like Wenger had found the sharpest of blade to cut through opposition defences.
Sadly, for both player and club, that was the high watermark for Vela, not only for that season but in his time playing for Arsenal. The remainder of the season only brought a further three goals. He would finish the season having made 29 appearances across all competitions with half-a-dozen strikes to his name. It was pretty poor fare, although there was of course mitigation in the fact that it was his first season in English football, and perhaps better would follow.
A later start to the following season due to ankle surgery hardly helped, and again there was an early encouragement when his seasonal debut in September saw him come from the bench to score against West Bromwich Albion. Could he kick on from there? Opportunities for a young forward seeking to make his mark were understandably scarce at a club chasing top honours but, Wenger has always put great store in giving youth a chance to shine, and a renewal of his contract in the last month of 2009 suggested, a belief in Vela’s ability to come through.
The wait would continue however as, by the season’s end, just one more goal had been added to his tally, with a strike in the League Cup. His end of term report read 20 games across all competitions and just two goals. It as even a step back from the last term’s total.
Despite the new agreement, by now there was clear doubt whether, for whatever reason – be it the more physical aspect of the English game, the different environment or merely the more demanding standard – Vela was going to be the striker the club had wanted, and thought, him to be. By January 2011, it seemed very much the case that they had decided that he wasn’t. Top tier English football is a very unforgiving place if failure to deliver becomes anything resembling habitual. Even Wenger’s renowned belief in placing faith in his players had been tested to the limit and, once more, after an early season goal in September, a fallow period followed. By January 2011, the die was cast.
Vela had appeared in just four Premier League games, and his single goal in that season’s competition precisely mirrored his return over the previous two. Three league goals in three terms was clearly unacceptable, and despite scoring a couple of goals in the Champions League as well, Carlos Vela’s time with the Gunners was drawing to a close.
A loan move to West Bromwich Albion may have been looked at as a last gasp attempt for the player to prove himself in the Premier League at a club where expectation, and competition for places, was less ferocious and demanding. Until the end of the season though, eight appearances in league games, hardly suggested a renaissance was on the cards, and a couple of goals were insufficient to convince anyone that the Mexican could excel in English football.
In August 2011, Arsenal announced a deal with Real Sociedad for a move, initially on loan, although by early in the new year, the player himself had clearly decided that his career would benefit more by playing in Spain than returning to England. A forward who was clearly more settled in the Basque Region would ramp up his performances, and his dozen goals in 35 La Liga appearance offered ample illustration. With the player’s espoused wish to stay at the club, Arsenal’s willingness to sell and Sociedad’s satisfaction with Vela’s goals and performances, a full transfer suited all parties, and Arsenal received a substantial profit on their initial outlay, recouping some €3 million from the Basques.
The following few seasons would bring fairly consistent rewards as Vela’s goal returns for the Txuri-urdinak would rise from 12 to 14 and then reach a peak of 21 in 52 games during the 2013-14 season. From there, however, the fortunes of both club and player would slowly decline. A serious knee injury in January 2015 meant two months out of action, but he would still play 36 games, but a return of five goals illustrated that things were not going well. The following season even saw a controversy between player and club after Vela had reported sick, and unable to turn up for training, although a couple of days later had appeared on social media attending a music concert. Whatever the merits of a rapid recovery, it was unlikely to endear the player to the club’s hierarchy. He would still score ten times that season, but it was hardly the heady returns of his early days there.
At the beginning of the new season, Sociedad announced a deal had been completed with nascent MLS club Los Angeles FC to join them in January 2018. Unsurprisingly perhaps, his last few months in the Basque Region hardly produced great results, and by the time he moved to the USA, he has scored just a single goal.
Of course, it’s difficult to evaluate the stresses on any player, let alone one of the tender years, when displaced from home to a foreign environment on the other side of the Atlantic, and such a momentous change may well have been one of the major reasons why Carlos Vela failed to produce for Arsenal. A first full season on the West Coast of the USA certainly supports the theory originally posited about the move to Sociedad that the Mexican operates best where he feels comfortable. Although some may argue that the less demanding standards in the MLS may also be a contributory factor to Vela kicking off in style for his new club, netting 15 goals in 32 games. Perhaps the next few seasons will tell but, with regular acclaim coming his way in America, it may be that at 30 years of age, Carlos Vela has found the home he was looking for when he left Mexico in 2005.