The Transformation

Largely written off at one time by the bulk of the Everton fanbase, Alex Iwobi has undergone a metamorphosis unlike any in living Evertonian memory... and it has come just when the club desperately needed it

It was only as recently as nine months ago that Alex Iwobi had largely been written off as another failed Everton signing; the “poster boy”, almost, for the recklessly profligate and haphazard nature of the club’s recruitment over the course of Farhad Moshiri’s regime to that point, and one of the more prominent examples of unwanted and unproductive outside influence on the billionaire owner from figures like Kia Joorabchian.

Signed almost literally on the deadline for incoming transfers in August 2019, the Nigerian midfielder bore all the hallmarks at the time of a panic purchase, with the price tag that reflected the premium often applied to last-minute sales, and over the ensuing months there was little to justify the outlay of an initial £28m on a player who, while admittedly still young, had flattered to deceive at Arsenal.

And when Marco Silva’s tenure imploded and Carlo Ancelotti was appointed in late December, the Italian used the second half of the 2019-20 season to fully assess the squad he had inherited and he would make overhauling the midfield the priority the following summer.

It was telling, perhaps, that Iwobi was omitted entirely from the first match of Ancelotti’s first season following the signing of Allan, Abdoulaye Doucouré and James Rodriguez and by the time he started his first game of 2020-21, he had been converted to right wing-back as the Italian experimented with a line-up that had just lost three on the bounce and seen a flying start to the campaign abruptly come off the rails.

That wouldn’t be the last time Iwobi was deployed as a wing-back, an illustration of his versatility as much as of a career overall that has seen him played in a variety of roles at both of the clubs he has represented without ever nailing one particular position down as his own.

However, the suspicion from observers has always been that his best position, the one in which he revels in playing for his country, is as a central attacking midfielder. Not for nothing was the refrain from Arsenal fans when Everton signed him: “Just don’t play him on the wing.” Yet that is where he played almost exclusively in his final season at the Emirates , when he made 30 starts and 51 appearances in all, and in his 29 appearances during his first full season at Goodison Park.

It took almost three years and for the Nigeria international to reach the point where his name was rumoured to be among those being quietly circulated around by Everton as a player they would consider offloading before he would finally emerge as a linchpin in the Blues’ first team in the part of the pitch where most believe he is best suited.

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Alexander Chuka Iwobi was born in Lagos, Nigeria’s former capital, in May 1996 but he grew up in the Newham borough of London after his family moved to England when he was four years old. He joined Arsenal as an eight-year-old but his dream of one day representing the Gunners at senior level was almost cut short when the club considered releasing him when he was 14 and again at the age of 16.

He impressed sufficiently to remain in the North London club’s academy, however, and, having scored 10 goals in 19 games for the Under-21s the season before, by the 2015-16 season, he made the step up to Arsenal’s first-team set-up, making his debut in a League Cup tie against Sheffield Wednesday that October and then making his Premier League bow off the bench a few days later in an away game against Swansea City.

Benefitting from Arsene Wenger’s decision not to send him out on loan, Alex began to bed himself into Arsenal’s first-team set-up, training alongside world-class players like Alexis Sanchez and Mezut Özil. Eventually, he would start keeping future Everton team-mate Theo Walcott out of the side as he continued to develop and impress.

“I’ve always been told at certain moments that I’m not good enough and there were times I was going to get released at Arsenal. So I’ve always had to have that belief in myself that I can overcome any obstacle and prove to people that I am good enough.”

Alex Iwobi

“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,” Wenger said of the 19-year-old Iwobi. “That’s benefited from the fact that he knows everybody and they trust him as well. I didn’t expect that level of efficiency or impact on the scoresheet.”

Almost predictably, given that he is not renowned since for his goalscoring ability — the most he has managed in a season to date is five goals in all competitions, scored for Arsenal in 2018-19 that included, of course, a quite brilliant consolation strike on the half-volley in the Europa League Final against Chelsea in Baku — his first senior goal came at Goodison Park, just days after lining up against Barcelona at the Nou Camp in the Champions League, on his first Premier League start for the Gunners in March 2016 in a 2-0 win over Roberto Martinez’s Everton. Latching onto a ball over the top, he galloped into oceans of space behind the Toffees’ back line and calmly slotted the ball between Joel Robles’s legs.

In terms of his international allegiance, although he represented England from Under-16 to Under-18 level, he ultimately opted to play for his native Nigeria like his uncle, one-time Premier League star Jay-Jay Okocha, with whom he is in regular contact.

“I was playing for England at 16, 17, 18 and then had two spells at 19 but then it dried up,” Alex explained to The Irish News on a recent trip to Belfast where his charitable foundation, Project 17, is branching out with a new partnership aimed at helping immigrants and people from different backgrounds integrate into their new communities via sport. “Obviously I'm originally from Nigeria, and they gave me the opportunity to go and play, or come and trial for their under-23s for the Olympics. And it's something I just thought, well, let me go and see what it's like, go and embrace my culture.

“I went and enjoyed it. I've really felt at home because I was brought up in the Nigerian culture with my family. That felt perfect for me. Although I did really enjoy playing for England, I feel like I'm more at home when I play for Nigeria, and I'm enjoying it.”

He was named in his country’s squad for the 2018 World Cup in Russia but only made one start and two appearances off the bench as the Super Eagles failed to get out of the group stage.

“It was a tough group, it was crazy,” he said. “But to be in the biggest competition in the world for me and to play at such a young age was like a dream come true, representing my country and my family, my parents and my sister was there as well. So I was honoured. Even though we didn't go past the group stage, we went out with our heads held high, we performed very well.”

These days, he is an integral member of Nigeria’s team but their failure to qualify for this November’s tournament in Qatar means that he will only be a spectator this time around which, while sad for him personally, will benefit Everton who will need him fresh for when the domestic season resumes in late December.

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The summer of 2019 had engendered plenty of optimism at Goodison Park, with André Gomes signed on a permanent deal following a successful season on loan from Barcelona and promising young acquisitions like Jean-Philippe Gbamin and Moise Kean coming in from Mainz and Juventus respectively.

The period approaching the closure of the transfer window was then dominated, though, by Everton’s fairly public pursuit of Crystal Palace’s star winger, Wilfried Zaha, a player whom Moshiri clearly viewed as the marquee signing to cap off the summer’s business and to give manager Marco Silva the best chance of success following an encouraging second half of the 2018-19 campaign.

Palace, however, were in no mood to sell unless a sky-high valuation of between £70m and £80m was met, a figure that may well have reflected his value to the Eagles if not his actual worth but, regardless, it was well beyond Everton’s budget and no amount of haggling as the transfer deadline approached could convince Palace chairman, Steve Parrish, to part with his most important player on the eve of a new season.

With that door emphatically closed and with time running out, Moshiri appeared to become a little desperate to make some kind of splash in the market to add more creativity to Silva’s squad. At the eleventh hour on deadline day, he returned to Arsenal, the club in which he once held a sizeable stake alongside long-time business associate, Alisher Usmanov, to discuss a second bid for Iwobi having had an opening offer turned down a couple of days previously.

The Nigerian was on a boat in Dubai at the time which only added to the complexity of getting the transfer ratified in time but, from the financial perspective, Moshiri had long been operating on a “money’s no object” footing and he ended up striking a deal that could eventually top £35m depending on what clauses were inserted into the terms of sale.

“I thought the deal was off,” Iwobi explained to The Times after everything had been concluded. “Then, my agent was calling me: ‘Alex, they are going to put in another bid. What do you think? I need to know ASAP.’ Bear in mind I am still on the boat, so I have to tell the driver to turn around. He couldn’t speak English, so it was tough trying to get him to go back to our hotel in order to sign the papers. He was zooming [back to shore].

“Everything was getting sent to the hotel. I was having to sign stuff and scan it back. Wait. Get something back again. The people in the hotel had no idea what was going on. They recognised me as an Arsenal player and they’re saying, ‘How’s Arsenal? How’s everything going there?’ And I am signing these papers trying to leave. That day was so crazy.”

Even at the initial fee of £28m, it was an eye-wateringly expensive transfer for a player who had just three Premier League goals and six assists to his name the previous season, the latest in a succession of transfers that had seen the likes of Gylfi Sigurdsson, Davy Klaassen, Yannick Bolasie, Michael Keane, Morgan Schneiderlin, Cenk Tosun, Morgan Schneiderlin and Walcott arrive for a combined £200m over the preceding three years. As such, it was a deal that raised suspicions, only intensified with hindsight as Iwobi struggled to make the grade at Everton, that Moshiri had acted at the prompting of his friend and quasi-agent Joorabchian without doing full due diligence on the target.

Iwobi would be the last signing made during Silva’s tenure as Everton manager, there would be no money spent the following January as Ancelotti began the process of running the rule over the squad and when £60m+ was splashed on new players in the summer of 2020, only the £20m outlay on Ben Godfrey represented speculative money on younger talent; the rest went on proven midfield acquisitions like Doucouré, Allan and James.

Yet even they were costly in aggregate — James, it would later be revealed, was commanding a salary of £250,000 a week while Allan is on close to six figures himself — and by the time Ancelotti had dumped Everton to hook back up with Real Madrid the following year, Uefa’s Financial Fair Play rules and the Premier League’s own regulations around profitability and sustainability had forced Moshiri into a biting policy of austerity.

The bitter Irony was that because of unproductive signings like Iwobi, the club couldn’t afford to give new boss Rafael Benitez more than the £1.7m it cost to land Demarai Gray in the summer of 2021 in order to buy the kind of quality that Alex himself wasn’t providing. The upshot was that the combination of a small squad lacking sufficient quality and an utterly ill-suited managerial hire in the form of Benitez condemned the Toffees to a miserable season that had become a fraught battle of survival by the time the Spaniard was inevitably sacked in mid-January 2022.

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Salvation for Everton and their Number 17 would come in the form of a figure as far removed from Merseyside and Scouse culture as he was. Regardless of how joined-up or otherwise was the process of replacing Benitez — it took more than a fortnight to accomplish and came down to three wildly differing candidates — it ended with the appointment of Frank Lampard and, in fairly short order, the belated emergence of a top player in Iwobi.

Everything about his time at Goodison that preceded Lampard’s arrival — from the bizarre and possibly panicked circumstances around his signing to three seasons of middling form and inconsistency under as many managers — makes Iwobi’s metamorphosis from expensive flop to midfield dynamo all the more remarkable. There may not ever have been a transformation like it in living Evertonian memory and it came just when the club desperately needed it.

The player himself had been away at the Africa Cup of Nations when Lampard arrived on 31st January and he was a substitute for his first two games in charge but when a landmark home fixture against Leeds came around on 12th February, Iwobi heeded the new manager’s advice to take what he was showing in training at Finch Farm and reproduce it on the pitch at Goodison Park and beyond.

Iwobi had long been renowned among Everton’s players as being the most skilful player in the squad, even if match-going Blues might have had a hard time believing it based on the evidence before them on match days. But there was no questioning his application at Finch Farm which is, perhaps, why he remained a fixture in the side even while it struggled as successive managers moved him through different positions trying to leverage that work-rate. Lampard simply told him to play the way he trains and express himself on the pitch.

The game against Leeds was only his eighth start of the campaign but Iwobi was a player reborn and not only did he put in what was his best performance in a Blue jersey to that point, he got a maximum-dose of the confidence that comes from having a bouncing Goodison behind you. It was an eye-opening moment that changed his approach, his demeanour and his effectiveness.

He later admitted, after a terrific display of tracking back, harrying Leeds players out of their stride in the press, and uncharacteristic productivity with the ball at his feet, to the realisation that if you give 100%, if you run and give everything for the cause, Everton’s fans will back you, forgive you for making mistakes in trying things and give you the confidence to try them again.

“His ball progression and work rate, what Frank has now recognised him and put him there... listen to the Everton fans when he’s doing his work; they are adoring him now. I’m loving the way it’s working out for Iwobi. I’m just talking about somebody who’s making a massive difference to what Everton need – the work rate, his ball progression, his passing, everything.”

Ian Wright

A month later, a player long criticised for his lack of end product blew the proverbial roof off the Grand Old Lady with a 99th-minute winner for the 10-man Blues against Newcastle in a game that ended up being crucial in terms of the club’s survival from relegation — bursting through central midfield and picking up a deft return ball from Dominic Calvert-Lewin before burying a left-foot shot.

Perhaps the embodiment of a “confidence player”, Iwobi described the impact it can have on a player when the home crowd and the manager is fully behind you:

“You almost feel unstoppable. You almost feel like you can do anything on the pitch.”

He would be asked to play right wing-back at times as Lampard tried to find the best mix of defensive solidity to allow Everton to pick up enough points to stay up but Iwobi had clearly turned a corner. Fast forward to the early past of this season and even when tasked with playing a deeper-lying midfield role because of injuries and a lack of depth in the holding tole, Iwobi has been displaying the maturity, composure and control that these days makes him the first outfield name on the team sheet.

Impressive against Chelsea and Nottingham Forest despite the disappointing results, he came to the fore in the Goodison derby with some mesmeric footwork around Liverpool’s much-vaunted Mohamed Salah that went viral on social media. Against West Ham this past weekend, he was deservedly named player of the match in the Toffees’ first win of the season.

Even though he has shown glimpses in patches of the player he could be, such a renaissance, on balance, looked a remote possibility as Everton struggled at times over the past three seasons. Iwobi himself never gave up hope of things coming good for him on the Blue half of Merseyside.

“I never had the mindset that it was never going to work out”, he said in a recent interview with evertontv. “I always thought I could overcome this and prove people wrong and it was just a matter of timing.

“When the opportunity came with the new manager, I used it like a new chapter in my life where I said, ‘forget the past; what’s happened has happened, let’s go again’. It’s a new challenge [and] it’s worked alright so far.”

Iwobi has risen to that challenge and it is, indeed, working for him, so much so that there have been calls from some Arsenal fans to buy him back while Gunners legend Ian Wright says his club might have made a mistake in selling him to Everton three years ago and that current boss Mikel Arteta could do with “his work rate, his ball progression, his passing, everything” in his title-chasing side.

Everton, however, are making moves to reward Iwobi for his transformation by preparing a bumper new contract to replace the one that expires in the summer of 2024. Perhaps no player in the Blues' squad deserves it more. In the meantime, the player himself gets to keep developing his new partnership in what Evertonians are lauding as the most balanced and exciting midfield trio the club have had in many years.

Together with Amadou Onana and Idrissa Gueye, the Blues have with Iwobi power, agility, legs and determination in the middle of the park where before they were weak and porous. He will know that consistency has been his biggest issue since he joined, that he needs to add more end product to his game in the vein of his vital assist against the Hammers, and start to weigh in with his share of goals from midfield.

As he grows in stature and appears to finally be fulfilling his rich potential, you wouldn’t bet against his innate self-confidence.

“I’ve always been told at certain moments that I’m not good enough and there were times I was going to get released at Arsenal,” he recently said in The Athletic. “So I’ve always had to have that belief in myself that I can overcome any obstacle and prove to people that I am good enough.

“It’s taken three years but it’s never too late,” he says with a smile. “Obviously it hasn’t always been the best, but the fans have given me belief. I have to maintain it now.”

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