This story first appeared in the June 2016 edition of the Arsenal Magazine.
Within the space of 72 hours in March, Alex Iwobi started his first Champions League game - away to Barcelona no less - made his full Premier League debut, scored his first Gunners goal, and picked up his maiden man-of-the-match award. Those few days sum up the youngster's incredible breakthrough season in microcosm.
After that Nou Camp outing, he stayed in the starting line up for the next eight games – during which time Arsenal remained unbeaten – and kept far more experienced players out of the side. The 20 year old is now firmly established in the first-team squad, and is regarded as one of the most exciting young talents in the whole of the Premier League.
He's also now a full Nigeria international. His rise over the past few months has been truly meteoric...
Yet when Alex was interviewed in this very magazine back in August, his was a name still unfamiliar to most Gunners fans. At that point, the Lagos-born forward had only ever represented the club at youth team level, albeit for more than ten years. He hadn’t played senior competitive football at all, not even down the leagues on loan.
"I didn't expect that level of efficiency or impact on the scoresheet," Arsène Wenger admitted recently. "He's worked with us since the start of the season and he has grown, gained confidence and when he came in he had an impact straight away," the boss added.
Yet as Alex reveals in this exclusive interview, his progression through the ranks at Arsenal wasn't always this smooth. The down to earth youngster admits to questioning his own ability while he was in the academy, and he believes the real hard work is only just beginning…
It was an incredible season for you Alex, when did you first realise how big it could be for you?
I think it was after my first start, in the FA Cup game against Sunderland at Emirates in January. I'd played a few games as sub, but I think everything changed from then really. It was at home, in a big competition and that's when I started to get a bit of recognition. We won as well, so people took notice from then really.
What performance were you most proud of?
In my opinion my best performance was against Barcelona because I think they are the best team in the world. For such a young player to play in a game like that gave me a lot of confidence. You can't get any bigger than that - Barcelona away - so to just be selected for that game means I am doing something right. Also I thought I did all right in the game as well, so that's my favourite performance, even though we didn't win.
The manager has shown a lot of faith in me to pick me for a game like that, but I also proved something to myself that day when I realised I can perform at that level. I was buzzing after the game. I train with some of the best players in the world at Arsenal, but to play against Barcelona could be a once in a lifetime opportunity, and the fact I thought I did all right made it even better. My only regret is that I didn't get a shirt from a Barcelona player afterwards - I wasn't sharp enough on the final whistle. Schoolboy error. But don't worry I've got plenty of pictures - they are all saved on my phone!
Then a few days later you scored your first goal…
That Everton game was crazy. To be honest I was a bit shocked when I found out I was even starting against Everton, but I was really happy. The goal was crazy. I've always dreamt about scoring just one goal for Arsenal, and for it to come on my first start was just crazy. I couldn't believe it.
Did the Barcelona game give you the confidence to add something to your game against Everton?
No, I didn't change my game. I always play for the team, it's all for the team, and that's what I did again. That's my mindset. If I play well that's a bonus, my main concern is if the team does well.
Have there been any games in which you didn't think you did yourself justice?
To be fair I'd say the West Ham game. Everyone told me I did well, and I got two assists, but I gave the ball away twice which led to goals. I knew if I hadn’t done it, they wouldn't have scored. Even though I did a few positive things in the game, it's those two passes that got me down a bit. I was very disappointed with it because I felt it cost us on the day in an important game.
Describe the moment when you scored at Emirates Stadium against Watford…
That moment was just mad! I saw Alexis look up, then he made eye contact with me before he passed to me. I just thought to myself 'get it on target!' I knew I needed to make sure I gave it a chance to go in, or at least make the keeper make a save. I was so happy when it went in.
My mum, my dad and my sister were all there. They were watching in Club Level because I haven’t got a box yet - hopefully I will next season!
What feedback have the manager and coaches given you this season?
Immediately after a game they normally just say well played or stuff like that, but with Arsène it's normally the next day at training when he pulls me to one side and tells me about the game and what I need to work on. That's been really useful a few times after games.
Do you analyse your own performances much? Do you watch Match of the Day every Saturday?
Before I started in the first team I watched it sometimes, but since I've been in the team I like to see how I perform, how the team perform and analyse it a bit more. I like to see what Gary Lineker or the other pundits have to say as well. You can always learn from what other people have to say.
How has your regular run in the team developed your game?
It's improved me a lot. It's made me understand a lot more about football, tactically as well as the physical demands of the game. I'll have to improve on that if I want to stay in the first team. There's a lot more physical and tactical work than I was used to for the under-21s. I'm still learning the game, there's a lot to work on.
How have you coped with the routine of playing Premier League football week in week out?
I prefer the routine because I love playing games, everyone wants to play as much as possible. It's a lot more tiring though, I must say, there's more recovery time needed - I'm sleeping a whole lot more lately! To be fair I'm always sleeping anyway, I did a lot when I was playing for the under-21s. I do like my sleep!
Do you feel comfortable as part of the first team setup now?
Yeah, when I moved changing rooms everyone really welcomed me, and I'm with them more now, even though I often trained with the first team anyway. That all helps you when you are on the pitch, there's more banter and you're more relaxed.
Has it been difficult to maintain your friendships with players from the youth team since stepping up to the first team?
No, not at all. Because of the kind of guys we have in the under-21s, everyone's cool. I still get to see them a lot and we hang around off the pitch. In fact I'm going to out with them a bit later today with a few of them. Let's go back to your early days at Arsenal.
Growing up at the club, did you always think it was inevitable you would play for the first team, or were you more realistic?
Well I was on trial at six, and I think I was eight when I signed. I nearly got released when I was 13 or 14, so back then I really didn't think I would make it here. There was a stage when I wasn't playing up above my age group, but all the better players were. I questioned myself a lot at that age about whether I was good enough, but I eventually got through it.
They did keep me on and I guess since then that's when I really kicked on. I played in the Nike Cup (youth tournament) shortly after that, and then England called me up and things started moving.
Has it been a gradual progression, or can you look back and pinpoint moments or seasons when you made massive leaps in your development?
Yeah, I remember the first time I got called to play up above my age group. I was, about 14 or 15 I think, and there was a game against Fulham, I came on and I managed to score, the first ever time I got called to play up (above my age group). Then we played Leicester, and even though we lost 3-1, I thought I played really well. There were a few games that stood out at about that time. I remember I got called to play for Steve Bould's under-16 team, and I scored then. I was still about 14 or 15 and that meant a lot.
Was that when you started to think about making it as a pro at Arsenal, or did you always have the belief you were good enough?
No, not really, it just gradually happens. I never really thought about things like when I was young. I always questioned myself about whether I was even good enough to play in my own age group. That's all I ever thought about.
When I was about 13 I needed the confidence from my family, because I was getting a lot of criticism from elsewhere. I heard people saying that I wasn't good enough, people at school, a few coaches said I wasn't quick enough and I wasn't strong enough, so I did have doubts. It put me down, but since then I've been able to motivate myself.
In hindsight, would you have done anything differently when you were younger?
I wish I was a lot more confident, but saying that, the fact I'm here in the first team squad now, perhaps I wouldn't change anything.
You were involved in the pre-season tour to Singapore last summer, then you scored against Lyon in the Emirates Cup, so what were your targets for the season back then?
Oh yeah, the goal against Lyon - that seems like a long time ago now! Honestly back then my target was to get a loan somewhere. I didn't think I would play at all for the first team here. We had a big squad, a lot of very good players so I didn't think I would get a chance. I thought the best thing for me would be to go out on loan, get used to playing men's football, proper competitive football. I've never been on loan, which is quite unusual I suppose. We had a few words about it, but Arsenal have always wanted me to stay here, so I never went.
What plans do you have for the summer?
I'm going to rest for a bit, because it's been non-stop since about January. Then I'm going to prepare for the next season. Hopefully I can be involved again next season. I'm not sure if I'm going to go on holiday yet. Then it will be pre-season, which is a lot of running. I'm actually dreading that, the first few weeks are such hard work. I always make sure I keep fit during the summer, because if I don't, the first few days at pre-season kills me!
What do you feel you need to work on next season?
I think because of the position I play I need to get more goals and assists. I haven’t done that for a while, a few games, so I need to add that to my game next season. I'm aware I haven’t got an assist or a goal for a few games, so I need to get something. I know a lot of hard work is going to be required to kick on again next season. I've been putting my head down, getting on with it and putting in the work.
Finally Alex, what are your targets for next season? Let me think. I don't know, because I always just want to play as many games as I can. But now I've got a couple of goals this season, I suppose I want to better that. I just hope I get the chance again next season, because I'm sure there will be more players, so I will have to earn my spot again.
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