Toxic Arsenal atmosphere is no place for Alex Iwobi to grow
By Solace Chukwu
While some of the suggestions of Arsenal’s decline down the years have come across as sensationalist hyperbole, there is now a real air of abjection about the Emirates.
There is no shame in losing to Manchester City, but to do so in the manner that they did at the weekend – and in the Carabao Cup Final – has left some understandable questions. What’s most cutting about these questions raised is that they go to the heart of what manager Arsene Wenger has always been perceived to be good at.
There was a time when, under the Frenchman, Arsenal were seen as the attacking avant garde. Even when the trophies dried up for a while, the Gunners could be counted upon as entertainers whose chief failing was a lack of pragmatism, who would invariably collapse at the very last like a ballerina in a stampede.
That now is a memory.
Arsenal are turgid going forward, and breaking the club record transfer fee twice in the space of six months has done nothing to restore the sort of verve that was so effortlessly achieved with comparatively middling footballers back in the noughties.
There was a time, and that not very long ago, that Arsenal seemed to raise their game in domestic cup finals. In fact, only last season, the North London side produced two sterling performances to see off both Manchester City and Chelsea en route to lifting the FA Cup for the third time in four seasons. The contrast with their supine acquiescence on Sunday could not be starker.
Even more damning is that there was a time when Wenger was considered European football’s chief harnesser of young talent. This was especially true for attacking players; it was his nous in nurturing talent and selling them on that ensured Arsenal were able to service the loan repayments on their glitzy new stadium a decade ago.
That ability now seems to have waned, and when you combine that with the accelerated dysfunction at the Emirates, you have a very neat explanation for the stalling of youngster and Nigeria international Alex Iwobi.
Iwobi has been with Arsenal since he was eight, and rose through the ranks to become a crucial part of the first team.
However, since he broke through two seasons ago, there has been precious little to remark upon regarding his development as a player. A less informed eye might say he seems to be regressing. What he is, in fact, is manifesting the chaos around him.
One of the ironies of football is that flair players tend to be more effective in highly structured systems.
While the natural tendency is to simply give them freedom, there is an argument that, especially at a certain age, it can be counterintuitive.
It is no coincidence that Iwobi’s best stretch in the Arsenal team came in a period when the Gunners played in a structured, clearly-defined style and shape.
In his break-out season, he came into the side in the second half of the season as Arsenal, as has become customary, were scrambling to salvage the season and secure a Champions League finish, and Wenger had gone somewhat back to basics.
That fine form continued into the next season, and was terminated when midfield conductor Santi Cazorla got injured.
Since then, the Gunners have yet to divine a proper playing style to cater to his absence, and an amorphous, nondescript shadow has fallen over the Emirates. It has, above all things, cast a pall over Iwobi.
There has been enough to suggest the ability has not dissipated completely. His turn for the national team in their most recent outing in November, was possibly his finest performance to date. In an organized team with a distinct identity, Iwobi was ruthless, scoring twice while playing upfront, a position he had not played since his promotion from the Arsenal under-21s.
It is not simply a matter of position or role, but of location.
For, while Iwobi looks to be coming into his own as Nigeria’s golden boy, it remains to be seen if Wenger’s talent for improving players still has the gleam of old.