Who will be Arsenal’s next Alex Iwobi?

The past couple of seasons has seen Héctor Bellerín and Alex Iwobi make the breakthrough from the Arsenal Academy into first team regulars. Their rapid rise has been a joy to behold.
Arsenal fans will surely remember Bellerín’s nervy Champions League debut in Dortmund. Just over two years later, the Spaniard is regarded as one of Arsenal’s most important players, even named in last season’s PFA Team of the Year as the Premier League’s best right-back.
Alex Iwobi’s senior Arsenal career is even younger having just made his debut midway through last season. The beneficiary of an injury crisis, Iwobi has seized his chance with both hands and Arsené Wenger has rewarded the talented attacker by playing him in 50 of Arsenal’s 73 competitive matches since his late October 2015 debut in the League Cup defeat to Sheffield Wednesday, including 30 of 35 this season. Iwobi, like Bellerín, has also earned individual accolades for his play, named the CAF Youth Player of the Year as well as earning a spot on the CAF Team of the Year.
The success of these bright youngsters has Arsenal fans wondering which of their talented youths could be the next to make the step up.
In the last five seasons Arsené Wenger has given first team debuts to 18 players from the club’s academy. While Bellerín and Iwobi are the only ones to become regulars, there are several promising players just waiting for their chance.
What do the players to breakthrough at Arsenal have in common?
Arsené Wenger has promoted dozens of players from the Arsenal Academy during his reign. Looking at ten of his most successful academy graduates there are noticeable trends correlating with what makes an Arsenal regular.

Arsenal Academy Graduates – Path to 50 First Team Appearances

 Debut SeasonSeason in which 50 apps reachedSeasons to get 50 appsLoans (prior to 50 apps)Loan LevelDebut Age
Wilshere2008/20092010/201121Premier League16
Coquelin2008/20092014/201563Ligue 1, Bundesliga, Championship17
Szczęsny2009/20102011/201221League One19

This table says that on average, an Academy player should make his debut around 17-18, go on loan once to at least a Championship side, and make their 50th Arsenal appearance within 2-3 years from their competitive debut.

Who looks most likely to break into the first team on a permanent basis?

Jeff Reine-Adélaïde: A fan favorite since starring in the Emirates Cup prior to last season, Reine-Adélaïde has been around the first team for a little while now. Just over a year since his debut, the Frenchman has only made seven appearances, all in the domestic cups. Still, Wenger’s decision to keep him at Arsenal instead of loaning him out speaks to his quality. A League debut is surely not far away, having been an unused substitute 13 times in the Premier League. How soon the talented attacker will become a regular remains to be seen, although his path could be expedited if either Özil or Sanchez decide to make this their final season at the Emirates.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles: North London born and with Arsenal since the age of six, Maitland-Niles is on the verge of a regular place in the first team squad. Still just 19, the England youth international has made nine senior appearances for Arsenal and 32 last season while on loan at Ipswich Town. An extremely versatile player, capable of playing at fullback, in central midfield and on the wing, Maitland-Niles’ early Arsenal career may resemble Francis Coquelin’s somewhat with the youngster gaining experience all around the pitch before eventually settling into a central midfield role.

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Best of the Rest

While Jeff Reine-Adélaïde and Ainsley Maitland-Niles appear to have successful future’s ahead of them at the club, there are plenty of others who may make an impact on the first team in the coming years.
Several players will be hoping that successful loan spells will increase their chances of cracking the first team. Midfielders Kelechi Nwakali, Dan Crowley and Gedion Zelalem along with defenders Tafari Moore and Stefan O’Connor are all on loan in the Netherlands until the end of the season. Highly-rated Polish defender Krystian Bielik joined Birmingham City on deadline day and will hope to gain some much needed experience as well.
Of these players currently on loan, Gedion Zelalem has the most to prove. Having made his Arsenal debut over three years ago, he has failed to kick on and is yet to make a league appearance for the club. After a decent spell with Rangers last season, Zelalem needs to light up the Dutch second division with VVV-Venlo if he wants to have a future at Arsenal. Although immensely talented, questions about his physicality may ultimately prevent him from succeeding in North London.
Others still at the club, include recent debutants Chris Willock and Ismaël Bennacer as well as youth team stars Reiss Nelson, Vlad Dragomir, Donyell Malen, Stephy Mavididi and the prolific Eddie Nketiah. Despite the excitement over this crop of attacking players, it is unrealistic to expect more than one or two to become Premier League regulars with Arsenal. At this stage it is too early to tell who from this bunch will impress Wenger or his successor and receive the required opportunities.
Then there are two players who probably need to move on if they want are to realize their potential. Jan Toral and Chuba Akpom are both unquestionably talented players, however, they are currently on their fourth and fifth loan spells respectively. Toral has shined at times on loan in the Championship while Akpom, despite a brief run of substitute appearances for Arsenal last season, has scored just seven senior goals in 70 matches. At 22 and 21, time seems to be almost up on their Arsenal careers and a permanent move away may suit them best.
Arsenal Football Club prides itself in its youth system and their history of bringing through players from the Academy. The past couple of seasons have brought us Héctor Bellerín and Alex Iwobi but there are so many more with a breakthrough in sight. Who knows, maybe in a couple years I can write about how Jeff Reine-Adélaïde and Ainsley Maitland-Niles have become regulars and the likes of Chris Willock, Reiss Nelson and Eddie Nketiah are knocking on the door.

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