Take a minute, try remembering the last time you read/heard Mesut Ozil praise a young academy product at Arsenal or Real Madrid. No one comes to my mind. When a player of Mesut Ozil’s calibre heaps praise on a 20 year old prospect (which he doesn’t do too often), the player must be exhibiting decent amount of potential. It came as no surprise to me that Iwobi was compared to his famous uncle Jay Jay Okocha when Mesut Ozil was prompted to compare him to a player of the past.
Arsenal (or rather Arsene Wenger) are well known for producing young talents and developing them into genuine world class players over the past two decades. However, Arsenal had somewhat failed to bring through quality first team players through their academy ranks over the past few years. The name of Hector Bellerin springs to the mind in this regard but he spent seven years of his childhood at Barcelona before Wenger scouted and bought him when he was 16. Coquelin was on loan at Charlton and his entry into first team was rather forced than a first team promotion. Alex Oxlade Chamberlain and Theo Walcott were bought from Southampton and not academy graduates.
The case of Alex Iwobi however is completely different when compared to his aforementioned colleagues. He has been at Arsenal since the age of 9, he’s progressed through the various youth academy levels and broke into the first team when he was least expected to do so. That makes him the first genuine academy player who’s broke into the first team (and reserved his berth) since Jack Wilshere.
Iwobi is everything you’d expect from a player developed under the guidance of his French manager. A solid technical player with composure and guile on the ball while at the same time possessing the ability to unlock any defence with a through ball. A ball carrier with excellent dribbling skills who loves to take on full backs and get past defenders.
What does he bring to this Arsenal side?
Balance. The addition of Iwobi into the side has brought balance to a team who’s always struggled to find the perfect balance between starting their best players in the squad and starting players who are are a better fit for the overall balance of the team. Iwobi’s presence has prompted Wenger to experiment Alexis in the CF position (amongst much anguish) for the second time and it’s been working wonders so far this season. The 20 year old’s ball retention, controlled aggression, ability to drop deep to receive the ball for a forward pass and general directness of the game to hurt the opponent is exactly what Arsenal have been missing on the left hand side of their attack. He’s now entrusted to fulfil the role once placed on former wide playmakers at Arsenal like Samir Nasri and Tomas Rosicky.
How does he affect Arsenal as an attacking unit?
Creating space for yourself and your teammates is one of the most difficult tasks on the football pitch. Not only does it require astute understanding of the game in real time but also vision, team work and technical prowess. If you have seen most of the Arsenal games this season you will notice a singular pattern in every match – they build up from the left. Ozil-Iwobi-Cazorla combine from the left beyond the half line in opposition’s side with Monreal supporting/available on the flanks and even Alexis dropping deep to combine with them. This is a harrowing prospect for the opposition’s fullback/defensive midfielders to mark 4-5 players in a very tight space. What this combination does is create a considerable amount of space of the right side of Arsenal’s attack. Let’s seek an example from their last game against Swansea.
The above picture perfectly demonstrates Iwobi’s impact. He combines with Ozil and Cazorla on the left flank which attracts defenders towards them thereby creating plenty of space on the right. Soon as the gap opens up, Iwobi passes the ball into open space towards Walcott or Bellerin. Theo Walcott has been a revelation this season and I’d like to attribute this tactic adopted by Arsenal to his excellent goal-scoring form. He thrives when he gets space to attack and play direct football, which is direct result of the above mentioned combination Arsenal implement on the pitch.
Make no mistake about it, Iwobi is a genuine talent Arsenal and Wenger have produced since quite a few years. It’s still early days but Iwobi seems to have set down his marker and established himself as an integral part of Arsenal’s first team. I’m glad he chose to become a Nigerian international instead of waiting for a call-up from the England national team. There’s far less hype about him and far less pressure to succeed which can be a good thing in the long run having witnessed so many potential young players not fulfilling their talent over the years. It’s important for a 20 year old to not get carried away with the sudden fame but Iwobi seems like a humble guy with a cool head on his responsible shoulders. Long may his progression continue!
Anand N, Premier League correspondent, on 19/10/2016 at 22:22
Follow Anand on Twitter @Xhakaal