Arsenal's Alex Iwobi enjoys remarkable rise, must fulfil potential
One year ago, virtual unknown Alex Iwobi was still preparing for the game that would serve as his big breakthrough: Arsenal's FA Cup third round game against Sunderland. On Thursday, the 20-year-old midfielder was recognised as Africa's Youth Player of the Year, highlighting what a remarkable rise it has been for the Nigeria international over the last 12 months.
It seems like just reward for Iwobi, whose FA Cup performances against Sunderland and Burnley were the first step in establishing himself as a regular in Arsene Wenger's starting XI. But it's also an award that highlights just how crucial it is for Arsenal to make sure Iwobi doesn't end up joining the list of young talents who have failed to reach their full potential at the club.
At 20, Iwobi is still a raw talent who needs to refine most aspects of his game. Perhaps the most exciting thing about his progress so far is that there still seems to be much more to come from a player whose combination of technique, vision and pace is a rare find, even in the modern game.
But there are reasons to temper expectations, especially given Arsenal's recent history when it comes to developing their prodigies.
Iwobi is by far the most exciting talent to come out of Arsenal's Hale End academy since Jack Wilshere, a player who can serve as both a role model and a caution. The Nigerian already finds himself a bigger part of Wenger's plans than the England international, who is spending this season on loan at Bournemouth.
Perhaps it is not fair to Wilshere to make that comparison, given how injuries have curtailed his progress in recent years, but the 25-year-old, who was thrust into the first-team at the age of 16, is also not the only former Arsenal starlet who has struggled to make good on his promise. Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain both arrived at the club with great expectations as teenagers but have had stop-start careers since then; Serge Gnabry burst onto the scene as an exciting winger as an 18-year-old but forced a move to Werder Bremen this summer after injuries and a failed loan spell at West Brom slowed his development.
In short, Wenger doesn't have a great recent record in turning young promising attacking midfielders into full-blown stars. But there is good reason to believe Iwobi can be different.
For one, he was given more time to mature out of the spotlight than the others. Iwobi has been the first to admit that he was a late bloomer and has said he even feared getting cut from the Arsenal academy in his early teens. Those early struggles are in stark contrast to the likes of Wilshere and Walcott, who were earmarked for success even long before they first played for Wenger. But it seemingly only helped instil a strong work ethic in Iwobi and means he still takes nothing for granted.
Iwobi also has a much more robust physique than Wilshere or Walcott, which should make him less susceptible to injuries despite having a playing style that often invites tackles because of his ability to keep the ball in the tight spaces.
His versatility also means there should always be a space for him. Iwobi played as a striker for Arsenal's youth teams, began life in the first XI as a central midfielder, but has been used primarily as a winger this season by Wenger, while he showed against Crystal Palace on Sunday that his real future could be as a central playmaker when he filled in for the ill Mesut Ozil with a convincing display as a No. 10.
And despite his sudden thrust into stardom, he also seems humble enough to realise that he's still on a learning curve and has plenty of things to work on. Finishing is one of them, with Iwobi having to wait until December to get his first goal of the season. In total he has just five goals from 45 appearances, and Wenger has also identified scoring as the one area Iwobi really needs to improve.
When he does, Iwobi will be some player indeed. He has all the talent and skill needed to make him a regular contender for Africa's senior player of the year award, but that's only if Arsenal can make sure that his potential is fulfilled.
Mattias is ESPN FC's Arsenal correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @MattiasKaren.