“He can play on the left, he can play on the right, he can play behind the striker, even number nine.”
It may sound like a fan chant, but the above is the simple explanation from Arsene Wenger when asked about the future of Alex Iwobi in February. The well-trodden path of the loaned-out youngster was sure to beckon for the 19-year-old. Jack Wilshere flourished after a spell with Bolton. Time at Watford in 2014 benefited Hector Bellerin. Francis Coquelin, Joel Campbell and Aaron Ramsey have all become key members of the first-team squad after experience out on loan. It has become a rite of passage for youngsters at the Emirates Stadium: Iwobi was surely the next in line.
But Wenger refused. “I have a hesitation about loaning him out,” said the Frenchman a month and a half ago. “It’s because I think this guy could very quickly play.” When Wenger gets it wrong, he gets it very wrong. But when he gets it right…
The decision not to loan out Iwobi spoke volumes. Wenger’s reputation for developing young talent is undoubted, and the Frenchman regularly uses the loan market to hand experience to those who are not quite ready. “There is a gap here between playing in the reserves and our first team,” Wenger once said in 2008. “So I try to loan them to another club, to get them ready.”
They say actions speak louder than words. Wenger was almost shouting when offering his backing to Iwobi by keeping hold of him; he would have needed several megaphones to send a more emphatic message of support than starting the forward against Barcelona at the Nou Camp in the Champions League last month. Iwobi’s sudden rise to prominence continued with another goal on another start in the victory over Watford.
After 76 minutes, Iwobi departed the field to rousing applause from a delighted Arsenal home support. It was the kind of reaction his replacement Theo Walcott yearns for. The England international rounded off the scoring at the Emirates Stadium, but he would be forgiven for suffering a bout of jealousy having watched Iwobi’s performance. He must also be fearing for his squad place.
Before Iwobi, Walcott was one of the last youngsters Wenger opted not to loan out. The forward was 16 when he signed from Southampton in 2006. But Wenger did not sound out a Championship side for a loan move. Instead, he gradually introduced Walcott into the Arsenal first team. While the loan market is Wenger’s tried and trusted method, special dispensation will be afforded to special players. Walcott was one. Iwobi is another.
Walcott was synonymous with the word ‘prospect’ in his teenage years. His raw talent and electric pace made for an incredibly exciting talent. But the potential has never been fulfilled. Walcott wants to play as a striker, yet has never provided a sustained run of form to support his argument. As a winger he is too often ineffective. In Wenger’s words, Iwobi “can play on the left, he can play on the right, he can play behind the striker, even number nine”. The 19-year-old is already a more-rounded player than the 27-year-old, and only one of them will progress.
The most impressive traits among Iwobi’s burgeoning arsenal (ahem…) are his adaptability and versatility. It is not that the Nigerian can play in a number of different positions, it is that he can excel in them. He facilitates and suits Arsenal’s style; Walcott so often impinges upon and restricts it. Iwobi is a team player; Walcott is an individual. The elder has been Wenger’s favourite for so long, but Iwobi has all the potential to usurp him. And potential is a far more attractive characteristic in a 19-year-old player than it is a 27-year-old.
Against Barcelona, Iwobi impressed. Against Everton, Iwobi impressed. Against Watford, Iwobi impressed. Three consecutive starts, two back-to-back goals. Iwobi has now scored as many goals in two Premier League starts as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – another whose potential persuaded Wenger not to loan out – in his last 30. The Nigerian has already surpassed one former Southampton prospect; he has every chance of unseating Walcott as well.