COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
Over the last couple of days, the future of Nigeria international Alex Iwobi has been a hot topic of discussion.
Much of that is ostensibly down to speculation linking him to a move to Italy, with Lazio rumoured to be interested. Now 22, and with a new manager at the helm at Arsenal, this summer is a pivotal one for Iwobi, who has been with the Gunners since the age of eight.
Unai Emery very quickly surmised that Jack Wilshere did not feature in his plans, allowing him to leave the club. However, the England international was out of contract anyway; Iwobi’s current deal still has two years to run, and while that is ample, he will expect to receive an offer for an extension before entering the final year of his deal next summer.
In that sense, Iwobi will be playing for his Arsenal future this season, provided he doesn’t move, of course. If he does, the challenge will be a much different one: how well would he adapt to a new footballing environment and a different culture?
Serie A’s more cerebral, contemplative stylings would no doubt take some getting used to, however, if there is a player suited to making the transition, it would be the ‘Big 17’.
His ability to inhabit the frame of the game perfectly makes him quite elusive, not so much a conductor as a chameleon.
He can be just as influential in a slower-paced side, and it would be interesting to watch him build a rapport with the prolific duo of Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Ciro Immobile.
He would also be the highest profile Nigeria international in Italy perhaps since Taye Taiwo’s short-lived spell at AC Milan almost a decade ago.
It might very well spark renewed interest in Serie A in Nigeria – combined with Simeon Nwankwo’s breakout season at Crotone last term, and the ubiquity in preseason of former youth international Kingsley Michael at Bologna.
It would be somewhat disappointing though were that to happen.
Following his sudden rise to first-team prominence two years ago, and the honeymoon that followed, Iwobi appeared to hit a wall under former manager Arsene Wenger, shunted around into various positions and drifting in and out of the team.
The sense was that, while Wenger’s more laid-back, improvisatory approach to management suited a young, upcoming Iwobi, he needed something more structured to continue his development.
Alex Iwobi | 2017-18 stats
It is a tenuous contrast, but his more effective showings with the national team under Gernot Rohr’s less fluid organization lend credence to this idea.
In that sense, the Arsenal board hit a home run in selecting Emery, an intense, obsessive manager who loves to work with players individually and has a strong track record of improving them.
He could well be the perfect manager for Iwobi, a player who has come to be severely underappreciated by his fanbase.
His skillset is pretty unique within the Arsenal squad: he works superbly well in tight spaces, displaying the composure and quick feet required to receive the ball and side-step challenges. He will, however, need to improve on his productivity in front of goal; ironically, he scores quite frequently for Nigeria, which suggests this is a foible very easily addressed.
Another area where he will also need licking into shape is in his defensive contribution. The player has gone on the record to state that he does not enjoy defending, and his efforts in that regard are often perfunctory rather than conscientious.
If he is to be relevant under Emery, this will have to change. The former Paris Saint-Germain boss is cautious in big games, and has been known to deploy two full-backs in tandem to protect the wide areas. As this is the zone he will most likely patrol, Iwobi will have to embrace the more quotidian aspects in order to impress.
That is the reality that he now faces: stay or leave, the direction in which he goes this summer will demand a great deal of work and growth from Iwobi. Both directions will shake him quite vigorously out of his comfort zone. How he embraces the challenge will determine whether he can begin to fulfil his potential as he enters his prime years.
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