Alex Iwobi’s tumultuous career at Arsenal makes fans question whether he will fulfill his potential. The Nigerian starlet has lacked an end product since he broke into the first team in 2015. The 21-year-old faces a critical juncture in his development: can he fulfill his potential or will he fall under the pressure?
If everything goes to plan for Alex Iwobi, he will become the heir to Mesut Ozil in Arsenal’s midfield. More physical and direct than the German, Iwobi can frighten defenses with his dribbling and passing ability, and his strength makes him ideal for the Premier League.
On the other hand, the 14-time Nigerian international has fallen short of his expectations in his two-and-a-half years with the first team. He has only contributed eight goals and nine assists, with one coming every 230 minutes. For a first-team attacker at one of England’s biggest clubs, that return is simply not good enough.
Aside from his disappointing end product, the 21-year-old’s off-the-pitch conduct has not lived up to expectations. The night before Nottingham Forest knocked Arsenal out of the FA Cup, the media caught him at a house party after 2 AM. That clearly hurt his rapport with Arsenal fans, especially after his uninspired display in the match.
Four years after he moved to London from Lagos, Nigeria, the nephew of PSG and Bolton Wanderers legend Jay-Jay Okocha joined Arsenal’s academy and has stayed at the club ever since, never even going out on loan. Iwobi emulates his uncle’s dribbling skills and deft movement in just about every match, which is the component of his game that he relies on most.
His above-average pace and physical stature help him break games open, but his mental aptitude for the game frequently disappoints and frustrates his manager and his fans. Occasionally, Iwobi looks as though he has no idea what’s going on during a match. The life-long Gunner has great potential, but his play has only shown inconsistency and sporadic flashes of brilliance.
The attacking midfielder can play in any of the three positions behind the forward, but Arsene Wenger has gradually moved him further central from the left-sided role he played when he first broke into the team. At 5’11”, 165 lbs., Iwobi has the size to develop into an effective presence in the center of the park.
Wenger only gave the Lagos-born midfielder three appearances in the Europa League, but he made his mark in the 203 minutes he played in the competition’s group stage. He assisted a goal and averaged three dribbles and 2.7 key passes per game. His dribbling average is good enough for the eighth-best in it, while his key passing average is the 10th-best.
For a player who relies on his movement and dribbling ability, Iwobi takes good care of the ball. He averages just 1.2 dispossessions and 1.8 unsuccessful touches per game in all competitions, which is crucial for Arsenal’s pass-and-move style of play. His 86.5 pass success rating also indicates that he has the potential to become a puppeteer in the Gunners’ midfield in the near future.
Iwobi is excellent at getting into good positions to make plays for himself or teammates. Unfortunately, he lacks the end product required of a consistent first-team player at Emirates Stadium.
The 21-year-old’s main problem is the fact that he does not change games instantly. The ideal winger or attacking midfielder will get the ball at his feet and attract the attention of all 11 opposing players. Iwobi does not do that yet. He does not have blistering pace like Theo Walcott or the bull-like strength of Adama Traore, he can’t place a shot into the top corner at will, and he is not yet the pass master that is Mesut Ozil.
In his entire career with the first-team, the attacker has scored only eight times and assisted nine goals. That’s a fine tally for a teenager, but as Iwobi edges closer to his prime, he needs to prove that he belongs in the Arsenal shirt. Wenger has put him in the first XI in the Premier League on 13 occasions this season, and he has scored only twice and assisted three times in 1,122 minutes.
In addition to his dismal finishing, Iwobi’s good pass success rate does not tell the whole story of him as a passer. So far this season, 50.4% of his passes were backward. Even Granit Xhaka, who fans criticize for passing the ball back to the defense and slowing down the match constantly, makes fewer backward passes, with a mere 36% tally.
In general, Alex Iwobi’s Premier League stats are drastically worse than his Europa League stats. It’s important to note that he has 17 league appearances to his name this season compared to just three in continental competition, but he faces much tougher opponents in domestic competition. If the four-time scorer for Nigeria stood out in the Europa League, the Premier League makes him look average.
Iwobi’s passing accuracy takes a turn for the worse in the league: he completed 89% of his passes in the Europa League group stage but completes just 86.1% in the league. Furthermore, his stellar continental stats for key passes (2.7 per game) and dribbles (three per game) look average in the league, where he makes 1.5 key passes and 1.4 dribbles per game.
The fact that the 21-year-old makes 57.7 passes per game in the Europa League compared to just 41.8 per game in the league reveals a pattern: Iwobi thrives when he plays a bigger role in a match. Clearly, when a player makes more passes, he becomes a more central figure to a team, and the attacking midfielder’s stats skyrocket when he plays more passes.
Hopefully, a correlation exists between the number of passes he plays and how that affects the rest of his performance because it’s always a good thing when a footballer performs better in a bigger role. For now, Iwobi must learn to coexist with Arsenal’s other playmakers, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Mesut Ozil. If he learns their secrets to success, then he could become even pose more of a threat to defense than they currently do.
In this stage of his development, Alex Iwobi is decent at many things on the pitch, but not great at any. The remainder of this season and the entirety of the next one will let Wenger decide whether or not he can help lead the club to silverware in the future. A 10-goal, 10-assist season in 2018/19 would get his development on the track to greatness, as would consistently good displays where he creates chances for himself and teammates.
Since knee surgery forced Alexandre Lacazette out for a few weeks, Iwobi has the chance to force his way into Wenger’s first-choice XI for the rest of the season. If he can end this Premier League campaign on a high note and add some goals and assists to his name in the French forward’s absence, then the starlet will put himself in Wenger’s first-choice XI for the rest of the season. With Iwobi, everything in his career has proven itself as easier said than done, so make sure to watch him carefully over the next few weeks to see if he performs like a youngster on his way to legendary status.