How Arsenal’s culture of change left Alex Iwobi underappreciated – and unnecessary
Alex Iwobi's last goal for Arsenal was a consolation, but it's a shame there weren't more fans in Baku to appreciate its brilliance. A torpedo that swerved inside Kepa Arrizabalaga's near post, it typified his time in red and white: graceful, laden with technique, but ultimately undervalued in the mire of Arsenal's problems.
To many fans, Iwobi has become a statue of the stagnation at Arsenal: a mildly unpopular pillar of the club, and frankly, the only real left winger in the wake of Alexis Sanchez's epic downfall. To some he's awful, others he's average. If Aubameyang and Lacazette are the lead guitarist and vocalist of the Arsenal band, Iwobi is stage-left on bass. A deputy, a stop-gap, Henrikh Mkhitaryan's other half. Like a second-hand car: an asset to surely replace in a windfall.
It seems a little harsh though that Iwobi's presence is often met with such disinterest. He registered the third-most assists of any under-23 in the Premier League last season, behind Leroy Sane and James Maddison. He contributes as many passes around the box as most of Europe's elite. At his best, Iwobi is a needle, sewing play together: an architect in tight spaces and an athlete when he has pitch to run into.
On paper at least, the 23-year-old is the petri-dish designer footballer that Arsenal fans expect from their academy. He joined the club aged 8 when they were unbeaten champions and grew up in the shadows of Arsenal legends. He was schooled in the geometric precision of Wengerball and endowed with some of his uncle Jay-Jay Okocha's flair. He's raw, his decision making often evaporates in the fire of away matches, but when Arsenal click into gear, Iwobi dazzles. He's a shy Jack Wilshere; a kid brought up in suburban London that dribbles like he's still got his school rucksack on, has radar vision and can beat full backs like a magician throwing a handkerchief over the ball.
There's an argument, too, that he's still not found his feet or locked in his favoured position. Arsene Wenger always favoured laser-passers out wide; Pireses, Rosickys and Nasris to dictate and drift like Red Arrows. It seemed Iwobi's destiny to carve his name into that particular rock, but the game has moved on. He's barely been tested in central positions – Arsenal also underrated Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain's promise as a midfielder – and the club have always valued Iwobi as a luxury-number-10-turned-wide-man.
Only Alex Iwobi is a luxury that Arsenal could barely afford. A cultured attacking midfielder, he was learning on the job from the likes of Mesut Ozil, sharing creative responsibility and stretching play for the German to operate. Iwobi blossomed at Arsenal as a secondary playmaker, but he's become more of a regular fixture than any of the primary ones. His career's been forged in flux; Ozil faded from the spotlight, Mkhitaryan has shone intermittently and Cazorla's light went out a long time ago. In the absence of excellence elsewhere, Iwobi has been an Emery ever-present: the face of away day disappointment and a mainstay in Arsenal's meekest team in memory.
The Nigerian has carried Arsenal's creativity on his back during the Mustafi mistakes, the Ozil injuries and the back three experiments of two managers unfamiliar with playing the system. He's carried a flame in a rainstorm and failed to keep the embers glowing. For all his promise, he's disappointed many. Stepping to Everton represents a mission failed.
But Iwobi is still worthy of far more respect than he ever picked up at the Emirates Stadium. A gifted individual who was always there, through the defeats to Bournemouth, the crumbling season finales and the winds of change. He rarely made the big difference but he never shirked from challenges. During a summer where fans have demanded loyalty from Laurent Koscielny, Iwobi was always the quiet kid at the back of the class, who never showed a deep desire to leave London Colney.
Alex Iwobi never got to celebrate his final goal at Arsenal. He half-volleyed the ball into the net with all the frustration you'd expect from a substitute fighting a 3-0 deficit, before turning on his heels and racing to the centre circle. Fifteen years as a boy, teenager and man at Arsenal, all culminating in one sublime, but ultimately pointless, bolt from nowhere. A squint of genius that no one appreciated. Iwobi was never the man to carry Arsenal, but he gave it a damn good hit.
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