By Julien Laurens and Andy Exley
When Arsenal signed Yaya Sanogo in the summer, it was very much on the understanding that they were acquiring a ‘work in progress’.
Yaya’s talent had been talked about in France since his early teens, but serious injuries had threatened to stymie a hugely promising career in the game.
Having returned to the Auxerre side after 18 agonising months out of the game, there was one particularly good judge of a young footballer who hadn’t forgotten the standout performances with his club and national youth teams, and retained an interest in developing Yaya’s game at the highest level.
That man was Arsène Wenger and, despite another injury setback since his arrival, six months into his debut season the manager showed great faith in the developing talents of Yaya, pitching him into three of Arsenal’s most significant battles of the season at Emirates – the FA Cup fixtures against Liverpool and Everton and Champions League encounter with Bayern Munich.
So a season growing into the demands of the English game has already featured a number of highlights for the powerful 21 year old and when the Official Magazine caught up with Yaya shortly after the team’s win at Tottenham he was keen to stress the positives of his debut campaign.
How do you assess your season so far Yaya?
I think it has been positive overall. I came back well from my injury and I’ve started to play some big games too. I’m happy with how I came back because it wasn’t easy at all and I had to work very hard. However, I’m never really happy with myself so I also have mixed feelings about the first half of the season and the injury I suffered which stopped me in my progression and my integration at the club and in English football.
I’m not naturally a very talkative guy but I ask a lot of questions and ask for advice
How do you feel right now?
After an injury like mine, you always need a bit of time to get back to your best, but I’m getting there and feeling strong. People say that you almost need as much time to recover all your capacities as you were injured so I still need a bit more time. Nevertheless, it was satisfying to come back to this level and to be able to play against Liverpool and Bayern Munich.
You must have felt frustrated to get injured so early in the season...
It was frustrating indeed. I had just arrived, I was so motivated and ready to work hard, to improve and to help the team and it couldn’t have happened at a worst time. I’ve been through a lot already in my career. I’ve had to overcome so many big injuries already that one more didn’t scare me at all.
How has it been to work with this squad?
It’s been so positive. When you join a team like that, even before playing, you have improved and learnt! I have improved so quickly with my team- mates. Everything goes so much quicker, at training and in games. When you train with those kinds of players, you have to step up a gear straight away to be at their level. It has been a great learning curve for me so far. I’m not the kind of guy to be star struck. As long as I have the chance to play, I’m happy, if it’s with Mesut or anyone else. Playing with the boys here is a pure delight. I have come here with my ambitions, my dreams, my qualities and my flaws. I came here to learn alongside those players. Everything I can take into my stride, I will. I didn’t come to watch and enjoy the show. I came here to be part of it.
I’m not naturally a very talkative guy but I ask a lot of questions and ask for advice. I think I can learn from anyone: a former great player or a less experienced one. There is always something that will be interesting. This season, Robert Pires has been training regularly with us and every time I can, I ask him stuff. It was the same with Thierry Henry when he was here with us. They are examples for me, and many of the other lads.
How is your relationship with Arsène Wenger?
I have so much respect for him. I will never forget the first time we met. It was last season in Paris. He told me that he wanted me to come here and that I would have the opportunity to play and show what I could do. It convinced me straight away and despite interest from a few other clubs, I only wanted to come here.
England was always the place you wanted to play?
Yes, always. When I was younger at the Auxerre academy, I watched the Premier League all the time. I loved the style of football, the atmosphere, the intensity, the goals and the pace. I loved everything about England and I used to tell myself: I need to work hard to one day maybe get the chance to play in the Premier League and especially at Arsenal.
I had prepared myself to play and when the boss told me I was starting, I was ready
First of all because when you think Arsenal, you think Thierry Henry and I grew up watching him and he made me dream. He was incredible. We come from the same town, Les Ulis, in the outskirts of Paris, and he was always an example for me. Following in his footsteps and coming here was always a dream for me. More than a dream, it was an objective.
Did you also always think that English football suited your qualities?
Since I was 16, I heard that all the time. I had the game to play here. I didn’t really think much about it to be fair. I just wanted to work hard to one day have the possibility of coming here. More than knowing if my game suited English football, I simply had to be good enough in the first place anyway!
Physically, the Premier League is very demanding, especially for a striker. Do you like those big duels?
(He laughs). It wasn’t what I grew up with! But it’s a big part of the game here in England and it is very important. I know I need to improve on it too, learning to win more balls in the air, to hold the ball up and all of that.
You say that but you put up a proper fight against Liverpool in the FA Cup against Agger and Skrtel…
It was a good game to play and I enjoyed it but it was tough. They are two big guys. I learned more in that game over 90 odd minutes than in almost all my career at Auxerre!
You talked about your injury earlier. There is a person who has helped you massively during this time, it’s Teddy Tamgho, the French triple jump champion. How did this relation come about and how important is he for you?
Teddy is like my brother. This is how close we are. We met in 2010 in St Raphael in a rehabilitation centre after we both had bad injuries. We got to know each other, realised we were from the same area, we had a lot in common and straight away there was a feeling between us. He started looking after me, giving me advice and everything. I’m his little brother, he is my older brother. When I got injured on international duty in September, he was there to support me.
In terms of experience as well, he must help you...
Exactly. He has won World Championships, he is the indoor world record holder. His advice is always precious, even with two different sports, in terms of dealing with the pressure, with expectations, on how to be professional or on what to eat. He is very important for me.
When you came back from injury, there was this game against Liverpool. Were you surprised to start?
I wasn’t surprised. I had prepared myself to play and when the boss told me I was starting, I was ready. In my head, my ambition is to play every game so I am never surprised when I actually start. I knew it was a big game and to have the faith of the manager was a big thing for me. He told me the first time we met that I would have my chance and here it was.
You also played against Bayern Munich a few days later. Did you feel any pressure before those two games?
Frankly, I didn’t feel any pressure! I promise you. I took it as another game. I have confidence in myself and my abilities. Even when I have a bad game, I never dwell on it. Nobody plays well in every game, even Messi or Ronaldo. I am always positive. I always believe I will redeem myself in the following game anyway and learn from my mistakes.
What about doubts? Do you doubt sometimes?
There is always a part of doubt for a player. But again, I try to leave as much as possible on the side. I have always been strong mentally. I am a quiet one and I don’t talk too much but I am very stubborn too!
You grew up with people saying how great you were at a very young age. How did you deal with it?
You try to make abstraction of it, to not think about it. At 16, I was scoring a lot of goals and people were saying it a lot. And look what happened? I had a very serious injury, I was out for 18 months and people stopped saying it! Talk means nothing. What is important is what you show on the pitch. My injury delayed me. Now, I’m getting the lost time back by working hard in one of the biggest clubs in the world. In a year or two, I will be where I should have been without the injury.
Who was your idol when you were growing up?
I loved George Weah who played for Monaco, PSG and then AC Milan and others. He was such a great striker. He was my idol. I was modelling my game more on Didier Drogba though. Some people in France compared me a lot with Adebayor but Drogba was really an example for me.
Talking about your childhood, how was it to grow up where Thierry Henry is from?
It’s where everything started for me. We were playing down our block of flats, on the little stadium we had there. It was football non- stop, in the day, at night, under the rain, the wind, the sun. We never stopped. I played for the local club, where Thierry and Patrice Evra played. We had a great generation. From that youth team, nine other players went to an Academy like Nantes, Nancy or Bastia. Also, there was a big sense of pride of growing up where Thierry grew up. We all dreamt of having a career like him.
“He is from here” we kept saying!
In England, the second season is generally better for a foreign player. Are you already looking forward to next season?
I am actually. I am still discovering at the moment, learning. Next year, I will have done a proper pre-season and I will know the language and the football better. I will also have a better understanding with my team-mates. It is still new for me to play with them and although I have integrated very well in the squad, with a big help from the other French players in the team, I haven’t played too much, even at training with the rest of the squad.
Are you thinking much about your first Gunners goal?
I think about it. It’s normal as I’m a striker. There are a lot of people at the club who want me to score soon. They can see I am working hard and it would be a reward for me an them all to get this first goal. I know it will come.
France will play in the World Cup this season. You won’t be part of it unlike some of your friends like Paul Pogba or Raphael Varane. Are you more thinking about Euro 2016?
To be honest, at the moment, I’m not thinking at all about France. I know it will come if I play well here. So the most important thing is to work hard here and play well here because everything else will come with it afterwards.
Read the full interview with Yaya and more in our latest edition
Finally, you had that horrendous knee injury while at Auxerre that kept you out for 18 months. Were you close to giving up and doing something else?
It was tough, very tough. I lost patience, I lost faith and I almost gave up. I had my family on one side that I had to support but because it was such a long injury I was not paid any more by Auxerre. Things started to get difficult for me and for everybody around me. My family was relying on me and I thought about doing something else and getting a proper job to get a salary. So I considered retiring from football and working at the Post Office. I was that close from stopping. But I persevered. I gave it one last go. I worked hard on my knee injury and I got better and I have never looked back. It was a really stressful time. I am a Muslim, I am very religious and my faith helped me a lot to go through everything and to overcome a very difficult time.