1 March 2019
Alex Iwobi has all the hallmarks of a cult hero. He joined Arsenal at the tender age of eight, while still practising his times tables at primary school. He has never played a single match of professional football for any other club — not even on loan. And, at 22, he has already been a first-team regular for three seasons.
But for a player who has spent fifteen years playing for the same club, Iwobi remains curiously unloved by Arsenal supporters. Just earlier this month, he was jeered when substituted against Huddersfield — a game in which he scored — while the famously neurotic Emirates crowd always seems to lose patience with him first before any other player.
And, unlike down the road at Tottenham, where Harrys Kane and Winks are dotingly serenaded as “one of our own” approximately every two-and-a-half minutes, precious few Arsenal supporters seem that inclined to celebrate the progression of one of the club’s precious few Hale End graduates, instead preferring to obsess over his shortcomings.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly why Iwobi has become such a lightening rod for criticism. Especially when his stature in the Arsenal dressing room appears to have grown exponentially, as Unai Emery revealed ahead of this evening’s clash with Bournemouth.
“When I ask Nacho Monreal and Send Kolasinac who is the player who you feel better on the pitch when he is playing, they say to us: Iwobi,” Emery said, when asked just how important he considers Iwobi to be at Arsenal.
“It is because Iwobi can open space on the overlap for them. So I think Iwobi is giving a lot for us. We want to play and we want to create our philosophy and I think for that Iwobi is important. But he needs to carry on improving and he knows that the situation can still improve.”
The area in which Iwobi most needs to improve is obvious. His end product since first breaking into the Arsenal team has been consistently underwhelming, with first Arsene Wenger and now Emery repeatedly urging the midfielder to improve his decision making in dangerous areas.
“When he is getting into the attacking third, into the box, he needs to be calm and to make better decisions in the final action so that he can assist and score more,” Emery added on Tuesday.
“We have to be demanding with him and he has to be demanding of himself, so that he can improve these things and increase his overall quality. But he is giving us a lot of attacking moments and opening space for other players when they are arriving to the ball. So I am very happy with him and I think that he is working a lot to improve.”
Finishing has long been a weakness for Iwobi but he is certainly making progress. For the first time in his career Iwobi has worked closely with a data analyst this season, in order to improve his decision-making when in dangerous positions in the final third. And while he can remain wasteful in front of goal, he has already equalled his highest goal tally in a season, while recording six assists. In fact, only one other Arsenal midfielder — the much-maligned Henrikh Mkhitaryan — has scored more goals than him this season.
For some Arsenal supporters, Iwobi will always be an easy scapegoat no matter these improvements or even his individual performance. Old habits die hard and there is a growing sense that a great many supporters seem to misunderstand his fundamental attributes: wishing for him to win matches single-handedly when in reality he plays a relatively thankless role in Emery’s midfield.
But, under Emery, Iwobi has become a key player and does not deserve much of the criticism that lands at his door. Both Emery’s answers on Tuesday, plus the glowing testimonies of his team-mates, would indicate that everybody at Arsenal agrees.
By Luke Brown. This article first appeared in The Independent.