When Arsenal submitted their squad for the knockout stage of the Europa League, Arsene Wenger withdrew 12 names of various status, including the departed attacking talents of Theo Walcott, Olivier Giroud and Alexis Sanchez. Only three came in and only one, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, was a forward player.
This more streamlined attacking unit won’t have escaped the notice of Alex Iwobi. The 21-year-old forward started Thursday evening’s 3-0 first leg win over Ostersunds FK, alongside Mesut Ozil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan in a lively trio behind Danny Welbeck. Despite an indifferent season and some negative headlines, the narrow squad leaves him in position to play a key role in Arsenal’s European campaign.
With Alexandre Lacazette ruled out for up to six weeks following knee surgery, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang ineligible for the Europa League, Iwobi’s opportunities can only grow. “I’m still learning, I’m still young,” the Nigeria international said after the game in Sweden. “I’m still learning from the lads like Mesut Ozil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Every time I play, I am grateful.”
He has been enjoying a consistent run in the team, coming – strangely enough – in the wake of stories that he had upset his manager after he was pictured partying hours before Arsenal’s FA Cup third round defeat to Nottingham Forest, for which he was fined a week's wages.
The suprise loss to Forest only increased the Europa League’s importance for Arsenal; last season’s FA Cup triumph served to mitigate verdicts on an otherwise disappointing year, but now only the League Cup and Europa League can deliver silverware – and only the latter can deliver Champions League football next season.
Iwobi says he has not giving up on the Premier League route, despite the Gunners’ eight-point gap to Chelsea in fourth and their significantly inferior goal difference compared with the rest of the top six. “No, we have to do our best in both competitions. That’s what we are trying to do: get top four and also win this competition. That’s the aim.”
On Ostersund’s AstroTurf pitch in subzero conditions, Iwobi provided a constant threat and was involved in the opening goal, when his low blast was fumbled by goalkeeper Aly Keita, allowing Nacho Monreal to tap in the opener. He now must add consistent end product to his game – he has picked up only two goals and four assists from 26 appearances this season – and perhaps this was a missed opportunity to improve those figures.
Even so, this was a job well done for Arsenal in a game where surviving the conditions and returning with a positive result were the only requirements. “Obviously it was a bit different playing on an AstroTurf pitch but we adapted very well,” said Iwobi. “It was a bit cold,” he added with a grin, “but we are used to that in England.”
Wenger has brought Iwobi in from the cold, despite his misdemeanour, and now the forward has the platform to repay that faith by proving he is more than just a fringe player learning his trade.
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