Alex Iwobi is pretty nailed on to start Sunday’s North London Derby.
At twenty tender years of age, he will likely be the youngest player on the pitch for either side. (Dele who?) But it’s fully deserved. The Nigerian international is having a great season.
It will be his 14th game in all club competitions of this nascent season, split into ten starts and three sub appearances. We played 54 games last season. Extrapolating Alex’s appearances over the campaign, this would mean somewhere in the region of 44 games at the current rate.
Are we storing up trouble?
From 2004-08, Cesc Fabregas played four consecutive seasons between the ages of 17 and 21 with over 40 appearances: 46, 50, 54 and 45.
In the 2010-11 season, 18/19 year old Jack Wilshere played 49 matches. And then missed the entirety of the following season.
But why is that an issue?
Ligaments and bones don’t always grow at the same rate. Young men who haven’t finished growing and play exorbitant amounts of football can be causing their bodies to develop poorly. This then induces injuries down the line.
This only gets worse if you keep playing through twinges and tweaks, perhaps with injections. Imagine you’re a young player breaking into the first team. You’re unlikely to let on about every new niggle if it will cost you your place.
A few things have changed since the days of Fabregas and Wilshere though.
Firstly, Iwobi is already 20, where both Fabregas and Wilshere endured a heavy workload during their teens.
Another factor here is that Iwobi is playing in a much better side than Wilshere in his busiest season, or Fabregas in the latter half of that four-year spell.
Both Jack and Cesc were tasked with taking an Arsenal midfield by the scruff of the neck, and driving the whole team kicking and screaming into the top four through any means necessary.
We couldn’t afford to buy superstars, so we made them instead.
But then we were forced to over-rely on them, and to overplay them in our quest to maintain Champions League qualification.
Admittedly it took place in 2009, but one particular example sticks firmly in the memory. A game – or should I say: a 28 minute appearance – against Aston Villa.
Arsenal were struggling, big time. The game was deadlocked at 0-0, as a team shorn of van Persie and Fabregas looked toothless in attack and vulnerable in defence. Wenger turned to his bench.
Fabregas was only a substitute having picked up a hamstring niggle, but came on, drew a foul, picked himself up and buried the resulting free kick. Next he tucked away a second from a Walcott pass. Finally, he promptly tweaked his hamstring again chasing another great Theo pass.
And that was that. We won the game 3-0, but he missed the following four weeks of action as a result.
It was symbolic of the various niggles that our then-captain picked up in a stop-start couple of seasons after that initial four year spell when he barely missed a match.
We made Cesc Fabregas.
And then we broke him.
Then we did exactly the same to Jack Wilshere after the Catalan departed for sunnier yet treacherous shores.
For Alex Iwobi, he is playing in a front four boasting players with the quality and experience of Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, Theo Walcott. He’s also keeping the likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the bench.
This reduces the burden on our youngster, and also means that Arsene can take him out of the firing line for a game or two – as he did against Ludogorets this week – and still get the required results. (Just about, anyway)
It’s not just Arsenal who have historically overplayed players.
Michael Owen has probably already commentated on more games than he played in during the second half of his career. However, it’s clear that too many games at a young age can cause longer term issues. The tales of Owen and Fabregas are certainly cautionary ones.
In some ways, Wilshere still has a chance of recovering – he only played the one season with such a vast number of games, and many of his subsequent injuries were impact related rather than muscular. The obvious link between Owen and Fabregas is the unwillingness of their groins and hamstrings to knit back together, where Jack hasn’t suffered from that type of layoff.
However, the real story here is that we seem to have learned from both our mistakes and our necessities.
We have deepened our squad so we don’t need to play Iwobi every game.
We have introduced him to the first team slowly over a longer period. And when he does eventually pick up the inevitable injury, we will be able to treat him with the same kid gloves that Aaron Ramsey is currently enjoying.
Pick your moment
The temptation for Arsene, when the team is displaying such chemistry, is to keep playing the same eleven into the ground. However, for a young player like Iwobi this could be disastrous.
And there’s no longer any need to do so.
That said, the time to rest our young superstar is not the North London Derby.
This game, more than any other, can set the tone for the rest of the season and it really is do or die.
Win at all costs.
For all his injury issues and subsequent disappointments, Fabregas knew that too. He certainly gave us a few moments to remember against our rivals.
He’s had enough sighters recently. Maybe Sunday is Mr Iwobi’s turn.