At £40 million, Alex Iwobi’s Deadline Day move from boyhood club Arsenal to Everton has made him the most expensive Nigerian transfer ever, and saved the Super Eagles from an embarrassingly quiet window.
Finally, a Nigerian has cracked into the top 10 of all-time most expensive African transfers. Iwobi moved into sixth spot, pushing Egypt’s Mohamed Salah (£36.9m) down to seventh. It was a rare Nigerian big-ticket move this offseason.
It is perhaps a reflection of the current state of the transfer market that Iwobi’s transfer barely moved the interest needle on the continent. Certainly, it caused nowhere near as much interest as his uncle Austin Okocha did when he moved to PSG from Fenerbahce in 1998, for the then-African record fee of £12m.
For perspective, when Salah moved for his then-record fee from AS Roma to Liverpool, it set continental headlines on fire. But since then, the likes of Naby Keita (£52m), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (£56m), Riyadh Mahrez (£60m), and Cedric Bakambu (£65.4m) have all eclipsed the Egyptian.
And with Ivorian Nicolas Pepe eclipsing all of that with a £72m move from Lille this window, it is understandable that Iwobi’s fee would seem almost like a cheap afterthought.
But most here is the most important thing…
Pepe’s move had a direct consequence for the Nigerian. As soon as Arsenal signed the Ivorian, it was almost inevitable, as the transfer window creaked shut, that Iwobi would be moving on from the club where he has spent the last 17 years.
Even then, the move happened pretty quickly. One minute, there were whispers that he would be joining Everton, the next he was having a medical and signing a five-year contract on the blue side of Liverpool.
Leaving Arsenal for Everton could be considered a career regression. The Gunners are previous Premier League champions, something alien to the Toffees. They are also serial European qualifiers, where they have almost always played in the Champions League, until recently.
With that big picture admission out of the way, let’s look at the more granular situation. Iwobi has seen minutes during his time at Arsenal, but Pepe’s arrival meant that those minutes would have been severely restricted this season.
He could have stayed, kept his big name club tag and struggled for minutes. But Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr has made it clear to his players that consistent playing time at club level are a key essential for a starting spot in the Super Eagles.
Leicester’s Kelechi Iheanacho is a not-so-luminous example of the consequences of being on the wrong side of that standing rule.
And at 23, Iwobi has more than enough time to work his way back up to another big club. Everton, one of Premier League’s best of the rest, offers an irresistible opportunity for regular first team football, something it appears he will get, according to Marco Silva.
“Alex was one of our main targets for this window. He is a direct and skilful winger who fits exactly the profile of player I want in my model,” said the Everton manager.
Silva’s words pose both an opportunity and a conundrum for Nigeria. Over the last year and a bit, Iwobi has been deployed as a central midfielder by Nigeria, a position where the Eagles have had some struggles in recent years. Even more so in the last few months, with first the absence and then retirement of John Mikel Obi.
Silva’s classification of Iwobi as a winger is at odds with what a source close to the player told ESPN when the move was announced.
“It’s a new challenge for him but a very bold decision with the potential to grow into a bigger and better player playing in his preferred No 10 role,” the source said.
That is hard to see, with Gylfi Sigurdsson installed as Everton’s first choice in that position, complete with the jersey number.
But according to the source, Iwobi is prepared to work for it: “There are no guarantees in football but you work hard and earn your points and I have no doubts about Alex’s qualities.”
For the time being, Brazilian Bernard is expected to be the immediate casualty of Iwobi’s arrival and the situation for Nigeria is set to be no different to what it has been, where the 23-year-old played as a winger for Arsenal and centrally for Nigeria.
But it could leave Rohr continuing to cast his eye out for a proper central midfielder, which would throw the door open for a player like Ebere Eze. Impressive all of last season, the QPR midfielder carried on from where he stopped, marking his season opener with a crafty individual goal that underlines exactly what the Super Eagles need in that area.
For his part though, Iwobi has shown that he can transition seamlessly between both positions, and his potential battle at club level (with Sigurdsson) and at international level (with whomever Rohr chooses to play there) can only be good for his competitive spirit.
Nigerians with recent big transfers in the Premier League have not had much joy so far. Ahmed Musa, Isaac Success, and Iheanacho have struggled to justify their price tags, but it does not appear that Iwobi will have similar troubles.
Further good news for him is that Everton has historically been a proven playground for Nigeria internationals. He joins an impressive list of former Nigeria internationals who have called Goodison Park home.
From FA Cup-winning Daniel Amokachi, to Joseph Yobo, Yakubu Ayegbeni, Victor Anichebe and Hope Akpan, all enjoyed good spells at Everton, and Iwobi should be well-poised to carry on that torch.