Starting from scratch. That’s what the majority of Arsenal’s first-team players will be doing when they take to the training ground pitch at London Colney next month. The likes of Mesut Ozil, Hector Bellerin, Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey are expected to be mainstays of Unai Emery’s new vision for Arsenal, but there are several players who are playing for their futures at the club following the departure of Arsene Wenger at the end of last season.
One of those with plenty to prove is Alex Iwobi. The 22-year-old has scored six goals in 20 games for Nigeria, including two goals in a 4-2 win over Argentina in November, yet when it comes to performing on a consistent basis for Arsenal the attacker struggles to impact games with the gusto that Super Eagles supporters have become accustomed to.
Emery’s arrival as head coach has already sparked a change in the form of summer arrivals, prompting speculation that certain players could be replaced. Stefan Lichtsteiner, Bernd Leno and the imminent signing of Sokratis Papastathopoulos suggests that there is a new ruthless streak at managerial level, with head of recruitment Sven Mislintat and head of football relations Raul Sanllehi working closely together with chief executive Ivan Gazidis to ensure Arsenal close the gap on their Premier League rivals that had grown significantly wider over the past couple of seasons.
Oluwashina Okeleji is a sports writer and broadcaster for the BBC with a particular focus on African football. Having interviewed Iwobi on several occasions over the past few years, Okeleji believes that there are several reasons why the Gunners academy graduate has somewhat struggled to get the most out of his potential at Emirates Stadium.
“Alex is more expressive and plays with more freedom when he plays for Nigeria,” Okeleji told Goal.
“He understands the role he has to play for Nigeria. With Nigeria you can make one mistake and people will still cheer you on. With Arsenal everything you do is being scrutinised not just by the media but by the fans as well.
“Sometimes it affects the confidence. You’re talking about a player who is 22 years old. Some young stars like Wayne Rooney probably handled the pressure that comes with playing in the Premier League at a very young age while some players begin to understand their responsibilities at 25 [or] 26.
“I think with Nigeria there’s the forgiving spirit and the understanding that he can make one mistake as it’s international football. With Arsenal every week everything is being scrutinised. It affects the mentality of the player. When I spoke to him I asked, ‘Why do you think people ask you that question?'
“He said he plays with a lot of freedom with Nigeria whereas with Arsenal he needs to help the likes of Mesut Ozil with the creativity role. Every time he gets the ball there’s a horrid atmosphere like he needs to get the ball through to the one who can make things happen whereas with Nigeria he’s the one that makes things happen.
“With Nigeria he’s the main man, with Arsenal he’s not. They [Nigeria] give him shared responsibility of distributing the ball, being the creative man who can hold onto the ball. That’s the job Ozil does well with Arsenal.”
Iwobi notched three goals and five assists in 22 Premier League appearances last season, with former Arsenal manager Wenger setting a target of 10 goals and 10 assists for the playmaker to reach.
“He needs to be more potent up front,” says Okeleji.
“He needs to have the killer instinct. Sometimes he’s indecisive when he needs to take shots and sometimes he’s thinking maybe someone else is in a better position to do what I want to do. Alex himself needs to feel like he has a role and responsibility to play. With Nigeria I don’t think he has that limitation.
“Watching him in the Premier League is different. The fans are screaming 'shoot!' In Nigeria the fans aren’t saying that to him. They keep pushing him to do what he wants to do. Some players take longer to develop. With Arsene Wenger going now he has a new manager and knows he needs to do better than the past two seasons. Now it’s a big chance to prove he is the man for the big occasion.”
Indeed, the arrival of Emery at Arsenal could kickstart Iwobi’s Gunners career and push it to the next level if he’s given a clear role in the team. Emery will be following his progress closely at the World Cup, which will essentially be a first opportunity to prove himself to the new boss.
The 4-2-3-1 formation is likely to see Ozil deployed in the No.10 role and with Emery’s track record at bringing youngsters through at his previous clubs, Iwobi will almost certainly be guaranteed playing time next season – whether it’s starting or from the bench.
“When I asked him [Iwobi] during their training camp in Austria he said he wasn’t thinking about Arsenal just yet,” says Okeleji.
“That’s the right mindset because this is his first World Cup and if you worry yourself too much you might try too hard to impress the new manager.
"He knows he has the ability to deliver. The World Cup is an opportunity for the manager to see from afar how to best deploy him.
"He’s Arsenal through and through, he grew up there, he understands the philosophy of the football, he has confidence in his own ability but he will need to do more than he’s ever done before.
“He would need to do more than he’s ever done before because like he pointed out to me, it’s like starting from scratch. Everything he’s done in the past is in the past. He said every player in the Arsenal squad will have to start like schoolboys all over again now.
“He knows he has his work cut out and needs to convince himself and the manager that he’s good enough to be in the Arsenal starting XI.”