It’s fair to say it’s been a while since Arsenal were graced with a young player, good enough to advance into the first team.
The likes of Jack Wilshere and Hector Bellerin made their way up through the ranks at the football club, but since Wilshere’s first team debut in 2008, there has been little activity in bringing any youth talent up to the first team, until now. Alex Iwobi; a Nigerian attacking midfielder, winger or striker, has just turned 20 years old.
He has been at the club since 2003 when he signed his first contract as a six-year-old, since then, he has progressed his way through the ranks and now has a solid starting place in the first team.
Moving on up
Iwobi’s first team adventure began in July 2015, when he scored at the Emirates Cup in Arsenal’s pre-season 6-0 thrashing of Lyon. He went slyly off the radar for some time as the season began, making appearances for the under-21’s team. Prior to his Emirates Cup cameo, the Nigerian forward scored nine goals in his final nine games of the 2014/15 campaign for the U-21’s.
Alex’s first team debut came in October of 2015, a bizarre 3-0 defeat at Sheffield Wednesday in the Capital One Cup. While any individual performances were masked by the disappointing scoreline, Iwobi earned himself his Premier League debut just four days after the defeat in Sheffield; as he came on in injury time at the Liberty Stadium and featured in Arsenal’s 3-0 win over Swansea City. The performances were taken up a notch after that, as Alex made his Champions League debut a further four days after his Premier League one, a 5-1 defeat to Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena.
2016 has been a massive year for the young player. He was handed his first start for the first team in the FA Cup victory over Sunderland in January, in which he was hailed for his silky performance in midfield, on a rare day where the presence of Mesut Özil was not missed.
He started again in the FA Cup in the next round, a 2-1 victory at home to Burnley, in which Alex played 71 minutes. He featured in the remainder of Arsenal’s FA Cup run, before being eliminated in the quarter final after a disappointing team performance at home to Watford, in which he started on the bench.
However, three days later, at 19 years old, Alex Iwobi was handed his full Champions League debut away to Barcelona. This was arguably the game in which Iwobi’s name caught the headlines. The youngster didn’t look out of place on a field dominated by some of the most elite players of the contemporary game; Arsenal lost the game 3-1 on the night but many positives were taken, Alex’s ability to step up being one.
The start of something
The next game was Everton away, his full Premier League debut and a game that he marked with a goal. Just like at the Nou Camp, Iwobi fitted into the scheme of things as if he’d been playing in the team for years. Arsene Wenger praised the young attacker after the game: “He benefits from his talents, intelligence and attitude.” Praise indeed from the manager that ignited the careers of many young stars at Arsenal Football Club.
Iwobi’s performance has not yet left the mind of his manager as he has become a regular started for the Gunners, beating the likes of Theo Walcott and Joel Campbell to the left wing position in recent times.
Alex scored again on his second game in the Premier League in a 4-0 win over Watford, and performed exceptionally at Upton Park in Arsenal’s 3-3 draw with West Ham United. He set up the goals of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Özil, a perfectly weighted through ball and a delicate flick over the defence in to Alexis.
The rise in performance and appearances for Alex Iwobi have come at the perfect time for Arsenal, who faced a rough patch of form over winter; losing winger Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the process. The success of Iwobi has been complimented by his chemistry with Danny Welbeck, the duo sparkled at Goodison Park, displaying a strong link up between each other. It is not just the physical strengths of Alex’s play that have caught the attention of the boss, but his mentality also.
His understanding of the game is quite exquisite for such a young player. Despite playing in the Premier League for such a short amount of time, his special awareness, vision and ability to understand the game of the opponents are some of the added bonuses that come with his speed and finishing abilities.
His performances have been appreciated by his teammates, coaches and the Arsenal fans, who serenaded him off the pitch at Goodison Park. Candidate for Arsenal Player of the Season, Mesut Özil, has praised Alex in the highest form, claiming that the youngster has ‘amazed’ him in his recent performances.
With this season coming to an end, many questions are asked of what will be next for Alex Iwobi. Arsene Wenger has already dismissed claims that he will send the youngster on loan, which makes perfectly good sense considering the standard of his performances in the Premier League so early in his Arsenal career. Iwobi will potentially be absent for the beginning of Arsenal’s season later this year, as he is in contention to represent Nigeria in the Rio Olympics.
It has been a particularly successful year for Nigeria, with the emergence of encouraging talents such as Alex Iwobi and Kelechi Iheanacho, who has found the back of the net 13 times in his debut season at Manchester City. The two are similar ages, similar positions and are set to lead the attack at the Olympics for their country this summer.
It has indeed been a year to remember for young Alex Iwobi, who has progressed from youth league football to an assumed spot in the Arsenal first team alongside Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez in midfield. The boyhood Arsenal fan will be keen to pick up where he left off when he returns to Arsenal after summer, with speculation of the departure of Theo Walcott, is it time for Alex Iwobi to step up and take the reins for a permanent place in the starting eleven? He is certainly going in the right direction to do so.