Analysing Alex Iwobi's Arsenal performance in the North London Derby
Arsene Wenger has assembled the deepest Arsenal squad since their move to the Emirates, and arguably one the best in the Premier League. However, if it is deficient in one area it could be the wide positions. Alex Iwobi has established himself as Arsenal’s first choice option on the left flank at age of 20, evidence that this area of the side isn’t quite as strong as it might be.
That is to take nothing away from the fine performances Iwobi has produced, and he looks a fantastic prospect, but a side trying to win the title might want a more seasoned option. Alexis Sanchez’s move to centre forward has robbed Arsenal of a winger, and Iwobi’s performance against Spurs was the cause of much angst among Emirates regulars.
Firstly, it is important to understand what Wenger wants from his wide players. Apart from the odd exception such as Marc Overmars, his best Arsenal teams don’t really operate with a traditional winger. Arsenal’s game has never really been about whipping in crosses, though this has become more of a feature since Olivier Giroud’s arrival.
Instead, Wenger likes one of his wide players to operate as an auxiliary playmaker; Robert Pires, Alexander Hleb, Tomas Rosicky, Samir Nasri and Santi Cazorla all good examples. Though Wenger has spent quite substantially in the transfer market over the past three years, this is the one type of player he hasn’t pulled the trigger on.
Instead, Iwobi emerged in the spring as the latest ‘internal solution’ Wenger is adept at pulling out of the bag. He shares many of the same qualities as those names listed above; Iwobi is a good mover who likes to fill the ‘half spaces’ 10 to 15 yards in from the touch line, has a fantastic first touch and passes the ball forwards and at pace.
Arsenal have sometimes played with two of Sanchez, Danny Welbeck, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain on the flanks over the past couple of seasons. Three of those players are ostensibly strikers, while Chamberlain is more of an old fashioned ‘push and run’ winger.
They are all potential match winners capable of individual brilliance, but their presence on either flank gave Arsenal’s attack as slightly jagged feel. Iwobi smoothes these edges a touch and lubricates the forward line; the ‘oil in the engine’ as Wenger once described Pires.
However, he struggled to make an impact on Sunday’s north London derby and spurned a presentable first half chance. Iwobi’s off the ball work leaves more than a bit to be desired, and he failed to switch to defensive mode on a few occasions in the first half against Spurs.
This switch in mentality when possession is lost, ‘defensive transition’ to use the trendy phrase, is a crucial part of the modern game especially for Arsenal who are trying to become a more efficient pressing side. In one instance, Spurs were able to work their way from a throw in on the left flank to an attack down their right because Iwobi had not tucked in and done his job.
A big factor in the difficulty he faced however was Tottenham’s new 3-4-1-2 system. Wenger likes to give his players the power of self-determination on the pitch, allowing them to find the solution the game demands. However, sometimes a little bit more prescriptive instruction can help youngsters.
Iwobi and his more senior colleague Walcott appeared confused as to whether to track Danny Rose and Kyle Walker or press onto Eric Dier and Jan Vertonghen. Spurs usually found a way out of Arsenal pressure, which meant the hope side were unable to pen them in and create waves of attacks.
To say the game was too big for him would be lazy cliché, because Iwobi was outstanding in Arsenal’s 3-0 win over Chelsea. Young players’ form is typically inconsistent, and the Nigerian looks like he could use a few weeks out of the firing line. The problem is, Arsenal don’t have a player with a similar skill set.
Aaron Ramsey coming in for him would arguably make Arsenal a stronger side, with the Welshman bringing added athleticism and goal threat. However, Ramsey would play this role very differently. Much of his best work is done without the ball, running beyond the striker and covering vast differences. Iwobi plenty of touches of the ball and to operate in small spaces, often with his back to goal.
This profile suggests he could make an excellent number 10, and perhaps his role in the squad should be as back up to Mesut Ozil. Wenger is yet to rest either Ozil or Sanchez, starting them in both Champions League games against Ludogorets. Arsenal followed those two European ties with home draws in the league, so Wenger might have to start managing his two star men a little better. It would also give Iwobi the chance to play with less defensive responsibility.
Featured image: All rights reserved by Emrah Partal