Over the years, ‘Mama Africa’ has given birth to a plethora of quality footballers, blessing the English Premier League with some of her most talented children along the way. The likes of Nwankwo Kanu, Tony Yeboah, Kolo Touré, Yaya Touré, Lucas Radebe, Emmanuel Adebayor and Didier Drogba have graced the league, giving football lovers many fond memories of yesteryear to replay in their minds or on screens forever more.
Two emerging Super Eagles look to join these ranks, already preying on opposing defences in England. They look to boost their respective team’s title prospects in the 2016/17 campaign and beyond. Nigerian winger, Alex Iwobi and striker Kelechi Iheanacho made senior debuts last season for Arsenal and Manchester City respectively and the 20-year-olds have each shown flashes of the immense talent they possess.
The latter made the more immediate impact in only his second appearance for Manchester City on September 12th of last year. The then 18-year-old Iheanacho scored a last-minute winner at Selhurst Park against Crystal Palace that day, punctuating his long-awaited arrival to England’s top division after arriving at the club’s youth academy the year prior.
While starts have been few and far between, Iheanacho has made the most of his opportunities either deputising for or playing alongside City’s elite lead striker, Sergio Agüero. In 26 league appearances last season, including seven starts, Iheanacho scored eight goals on only 28 total shots, with a 57% shot accuracy rate and completing 77% of passes according to Squawka. In all competitions, he bagged a more than respectable 14 goals in 35 appearances during his debut season. This season, he has shown new manager Pep Guardiola more of his capabilities, bagging three goals and three assists in eight Premier League appearances, with an 87% shot accuracy rate, giving City another reliable weapon in its push to reclaim the title.
His efficiency is admirable, as well as the fact he can play in multiple facets. Though just one of Iheanacho’s 11 league goals to date has come outside the penalty area according to whoscored.com, he operates as more than a right place, right time poaching type. He involves himself a fair bit in build-up play, possesses good vision and has succeeded on 19 of his 27 dribbles attempted since the start of last season. He possesses the nous to beat a defender and help generate attacks when necessary. Add to that a bit of girth and blistering pace as well as positioning, he has the tools to be a special player. Whether he will get the opportunities to use those tools depends largely on Kun Agüero’s health, which has been questionable at times since arriving at the Etihad Stadium.
Iwobi, who joined Arsenal’s academy at the age of eight, had to wait a little longer to make his impact among the big boys. He made mostly cameos in the first few months before earning his first league start on March 12th 2016 against West Bromwich Albion. After an impressive performance in the second leg of their Champions League tie against Barcelona days later, Iwobi scored in successive weeks in victories against Everton and Watford, before setting up a pair of goals in a 3-3 draw at West Ham United, putting the EPL on notice and giving Arsenal fans a ray of hope amidst a gloomy second half of the season.
Arsène Wenger has handed Iwobi more responsibility this season, with the winger starting eight of the nine league games he has appeared in. Alongside Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott, the trio have proved to be a very formidable attack in the early going, giving opposing defences headaches with their pace and positional flexibility. Contributing three assists, eight key passes, completing 86% of his passes and 47% of his dribbles so far this campaign, Iwobi has been a key component to Arsenal’s attack and has shown his potential as he looks to help Arsenal end it’s 12-year Premier League title drought.
Iwobi is the nephew of African great, Jay-Jay Okocha, who himself lit up the Premier League during his stint at Bolton Wanderers from 2002 until 2006. When watching Iwobi play, it is clear he is blessed with Okocha’s skill-set as he possesses strong close-control, dribbling penetration and ingenuity akin to his famous uncle. While these attributes along with his vision and positional sense make him a viable prospect, Iwobi still has much to work on, particularly his finishing. Yet to score on any of his 17 shot attempts in the EPL and Champions League this season, Iwobi can be accused of lacking confidence in front of goal as his shots often lack pace and precision. Wenger himself bemoaned this in a post-game presser following Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Reading in the EFL Cup in October.
“Now we want the finishing – that is a little part missing in his game,” he said. “He is too nervous when he has the possibility to finish. Tension is something goal-scoring doesn’t like. You have to be relaxed to finish.”
Additionally, his defencive contributions need improvement as his lack of cover has caused often dependable left back, Nacho Monreal, to be exposed more times than usual this season.
Flying with the Super Eagles
Iheanacho and Iwobi have not only given their clubs a dose of what to expect from them in the future, they have injected life into a floundering senior national team program in their native Nigeria. After winning the 2013 African Nations Cup and advancing to the knockout stage of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, much turbulence ensued. This includes a suspension issued by FIFA for alleged government interference and the long-standing saga between then head coach and former captain, Stephen Keshi, and his FA. Keshi, who at one point was managing on a match-by-match contract before being finally let go in July 2015, suddenly died from a heart attack this past June at the age of 54.
After making their debuts for the Super Eagles in 2015, Iheanacho and Iwobi have given Nigeria belief that they can become a powerhouse in Africa again after failing to qualify for the 2015 and 2017 African Nations Cup. The West African nation has won its first two games in the final round of 2018 World Cup qualifying, with the duo scoring both of Nigeria’s goals in a 2-1 win over Zambia in October, while a subsequent 3-1 victory over Algeria has given them a healthy head start in a deadly group which also includes rivals, Cameroon.
Alongside revived Victor Moses, Ahmed Musa and John Obi Mikel, who often looks a more capable player captaining Nigeria than he has when donning a Chelsea jersey, Iwobi and Iheanacho are on the path to leading Nigeria back to its glory days. They seek to follow the likes of Okocha, Kanu, Finidi George and Daniel Amokachi who put them on the world map in the 90s. These two talented Super Eagles will continue to spread their wings for club and country as long as their trajectories continue to tread upward. Time will tell how far and long they can fly along their paths to glory and stardom.