This article is part of Football FanCast’s Opinion series, which provides analysis, insight and opinion on any issue within the beautiful game, from Paul Pogba’s haircuts to League Two relegation battles…
After starting his career at Arsenal’s Hale End academy, Bukayo Saka has progressed through the ranks at the club and now finds himself in a position where he can become a first-team regular. However, once upon a time, the same was once expected from Alex Iwobi as a youngster breaking through the academy and into the first team.
Saka, 18, has made a name for himself in a short space of time. His performance against Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League placed his name on the footballing map after he scored his first goal since signing a professional contract for Arsenal.
Saka finds himself in a similar situation to where Everton forward Alex Iwobi was at the age of 20. The exciting, dazzling and intricate forward-thinking player looked set to provide a breath of fresh air at the club. Fleeting injections of exuberance had the Arsenal fans speculating over how high he could rise, a feeling that was at least partly manufactured by murmurs from inside the club.
Former manager Arsene Wenger hinted that his quality exceeded his youthful years and that he would continue on an upward trajectory, per Arsenal.com.
“The trick about him is that you forget how old he is when you seem him play. You never imagine that he’s 20 years old.
“I believe as well, looking back where he was one-and-a-half years ago and where he is today, what is very interesting with Alex Iwobi is that he is consistently moving upwards.”
Up, up and up, all the way to Everton. Wenger’s words do not represent the prophetic tale of progress that they represented back in January 2017, with his £40m summer switch representing a notable step down away from the big-six.
The media simply fuelled the hype, with Paul Merson gushing over Iwobi after an impressive performance against FC Basel in the Champions League.
While speaking to Sky Sports’ The Fantasy Football Club (via the Daily Express), the pundit drew comparisons with two of Arsenal’s most prestigious and internationally renowned talents.
“He was outstanding again against Basel on Wednesday night. He’s got a very good football brain. That’s what I like about him.
“He is playing with people whose football brains are at the top of their game, in the likes of Sanchez and Ozil.
But Iwobi has never quite managed to reach the heights that were once expected of him, and the fact he now plys his trade for a club who have finished in the top-four just once during the Premier League era underlines how much he still has to prove.
Saka, meanwhile, is at a similar junction to the one Iwobi found himself at when he was breaking through. Filled with promise, poise and expectation, the youngster has made a bright opening to the season.
His performance at Old Trafford stood out to Gunners’ fans during Arsenal’s 1-1 draw against Manchester United.
The links between Saka and Iwobi are clear: they are both attacking midfielder products of an Arsenal academy that have been hailed for their ability to organically produce high-class footballers.
The youngster who could yet become the player Iwobi was once expected to become has already scored one goal and provided three assists in five games this season, stats that suggest a success story is simmering beneath the surface.
Significantly, the club need to learn from the mistakes they made with Iwobi.
Too much was expected of the Nigeria international and his failure to mirror the hyperbole spreading through the media soon led to criticism from fans, with their expectations remaining much higher than what could reasonably be expected of an inexperienced flair player looking to make his mark at a top-four chasing outfit.
Saka needs to be nurtured, given the time to mature in order to get used to the physicality of the Premier League.
Having experienced players around him will quicken the process and help him to thrive at the top level.
Pundits will naturally sensationalise his ability in light of his most outstanding performances, but the lesson of Iwobi’s career so far should serve as a telling reminder for fans to not expect too much too soon.