What does Alex Iwobi owe to Arsene Wenger?

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The Arsenal boss' departure is the signal of a shake-up to come, and Iwobi will need to step up, not just for himself, but for his boss's legacy

COMMENT    By Solace Chukwu     Follow on Twitter
 

Judging by reports, the news of Arsene Wenger's departure from Arsenal on Friday was broken first to the players before the sparse statement released on the club's official website.

Who would not have loved to be a fly on the wall in that moment?

To a man, all of the playing staff had come to the Emirates, the sprawling, somewhat hollow cathedral, to find Wenger holding Mass. That the man defined an era was less apt for them than that he was the era, in fact. He is the club, inside and out, and for many of the players, there exists a very real debt of gratitude.

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It is the grounded humanity of the man that so often launched careers, and then held them stable when the bottoms seemed to fall out. For the observer, it seemed the indulgence of a former great who had lost his edge; but if, as Julian Nagelsmann, one of the "new school", says – coaching is 70 per cent social competence – then there has been no greater coach in football in the span of Wenger's reign.

It will have been particularly jarring news for Alex Iwobi, perhaps the latest big beneficiary of the unwavering faith in people that characterized the Frenchman's tenure at the club. Since making his senior debut as a 19-year-old in 2015, there has been a sense that Iwobi has perhaps not pushed on as readily as he ought to.

Alex Iwobi of Arsenal takes on Victor Moses of Chelsea during the Premier League match February 2017

Indeed, with some of the vitriol directed at him from the fanbase, it is easy to forget he is just on the cusp of his 22nd birthday. It is an instant world out there; where once blossoming talent at that age was considered the exception and an unlikely boon, now it is easy to be confined to the bin by 23.

With Wenger now set to ride into his own sunset, a player like Iwobi forms the most volatile part of his overall legacy at the club, for better or worse. The stadium, as well as fiscal and competitive stability, will stand the test of time, but it is the emphasis on trusting and grooming young talent, spawning Jack Wilshere and Hector Bellerin most notably, that will immediately be put to the test.

At this point, it is no clearer who Arsenal will appoint, with a whole host of possibles thrown about throughout the course of his time at the club. The subsequent underperformance of a good number of them has turned into a bit of a running gag online, but now the board must bite the bullet.

What is clear is that to appoint a man in Wenger's exact mould would be a mistake. It is precisely because of his doting avuncularity that such a sense of drift took a hold at the club. Therefore, there must necessarily be a tonal shift.

Arsene Wenger Arsenal Newcastle

But what might that change in direction mean for a player like Iwobi who, in the eyes of many, is a little too lightweight for a club with ambitious designs?

Even leaving aside the bare output of the Nigeria international, who is more a gentle prodder than a facilitator, the new man may come in with an idea that it is necessary to make a sacrifice or two to assert his authority, to shake the squad awake from a long daze and make a clean break from a culture that has enabled meekness and inconsistency.

It is very likely a player like Iwobi whose neck would be on the block: at the club since the age of eight, he perfectly encapsulates Wenger's Arsenal - a stylistic player for the senses, excelling in little subtleties but lacking the outright killer instinct to influence games on anything close to a consistent level.

Alex Iwobi | 2017-18 stats

For so long, Wenger has had to battle these allegations, to rail against all insistence that he had lost his edge.

In order for Iwobi to be relevant in the regime to come, he owes it to his departing manager to now carry on that fight and mature into a more direct, impactful footballer, to justify that great faith that many have thought misplaced up until now.

It is one which, if lost, could have major consequences, not just for the career trajectory of a wonderkid who seems to be stalling, but for the legacy of the man who effectively groomed him and gave him his chance.

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