It might sound like misty-eyed romanticism, but there are few things more satisfying for a football fan than seeing a young player emerge and develop in front of your eyes. This year, the ascendance of Alex Iwobi as Arsenal’s most promising academy graduate since Jack Wilshere has warmed the hearts of regulars at the Emirates. Just 20 years of age, Iwobi is on the verge of nailing down a spot in the first XI and brings a pleasant balance to Arsenal’s attack. He is a wonderfully natural player, and has something that is difficult to put into words; it is best phrased as having a ‘feel’ for the game. Iwobi seems to intuitively know when to stand still, where to move and when to release a pass.
As tends to be the case in modern football discussion however, a positive can’t be viewed in isolation. One player’s improvement must be set against to the trials of another, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has been unfavourably compared to the Nigerian youngster.
This piece by Charlie Eccleshare for Telegraph Sport makes some valid points about the mentality of both players. Arsene Wenger has gone public with his belief that Chamberlain’s form has suffered due to the Englishman’s highly self-critical personality. A dose of this is no bad thing, but too much can lead to a player suffering from ‘paralysis by analysis’. Second guessing a player’s mental state is always a dodgy business, along with reading too much into body language, but you can see Chamberlain’s mind whirring when he has the ball at times.
Conversely, Iwobi seems far more relaxed, and with his socks rolled down has a swagger on the field that manages to stay on the right side of the line without straying into Jack Grealish territory.
There are however, tactical and technical reasons why Iwobi is thriving while Chamberlain is not. The interesting thing about Iwobi is how multi-faceted he is. He has the youthful energy, pace and trickery to flourish on the flanks. However, he also has the touch, awareness, appreciation of space and weight of pass to move inside and thrive in central areas.
The cherry on top of the cake is that through the age groups as a youth player he played as a striker, and so is a half-decent finisher with an eye for a goal. Wenger’s game is based around fluid movement and players rotating positions. Players need have more than one string to their bow to really prosper, and Iwobi has plenty.
This is why Chamberlain has suffered slightly. Though Wenger has talked him up as a central midfielder, during his Arsenal career to date he has usually played as an orthodox winger. There is almost something antiquated about seeing a wide player get his head down and dribble at opponents.
Moreover, orthodox wingers such as Chamberlain have never really been Wenger’s preference. Marc Overmars was a speedy and direct left-footer on the left wing, but the Frenchman’s other selections have been more like No 10s; Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg, Alexander Hleb, Tomas Rosicky, Samir Nasri and Andrey Arshavin spring to mind, and are all are closer in style to Iwobi than Chamberlain.
The above names can be classified as ‘typical Arsenal players’, whether that term is used as a complement or a pejorative. There was a time when Arsenal probably had too many of these types, leading to the often mocked cliché: ‘the problem with Arsenal is they always try to walk the ball in the net’. In this era, the likes of Chamberlain and Theo Walcott were highly valuable because they offered pace, incision and unpredictability. They existed outside of the team’s overall structure, but that was fine because they offered something nobody else did.
This all changed with the purchase of Alexis Sanchez, whose arrival has had serious repercussions for Chamberlain. Suddenly Arsenal had a player who was speedy, incisive and unpredictable but who also brought aggression, work rate and more than 20 goals as season in all competitions. In many ways, it is an unfair comparison. Sanchez was a £35 million signing from Barcelona while Chamberlain was still a relatively young player. However, Wenger no longer relied on him to be a difference maker for the Gunners.
This interesting extract from Andres Iniesta’s new book was serialised in The Guardian, and in it Pep Guardiola talks about the importance having a player who can dribble in the last third:
“He sees it all and he has that gift for dribbling that’s so unique to him. That dribbling ability is everything today. And it was Andrés who opened my eyes to the importance of an inside forward or midfielder being able to dribble too. If he dribbles, if he carries the ball and goes at people, everything flows. With time, I saw that.”
This epiphany flowed through Guardiola’s work at Bayern Munich, as tiki-taka was phased out in favour of exciting wing play through the likes of Arjen Robben, Frank Ribery, Douglas Costa and Kingsley Coman. Arsenal needed a player like this to give some cutting edge to all of their possession football, and Sanchez is essentially that man. However, the Gunners are not as good as Bayern or Barcelona and so the balance of their team rests on a narrower ledge.
Simply put, Arsenal struggle to accommodate two dribblers in wide areas and function far better with a midfielder or ‘secondary playmaker’ starting from one flank. Their best period of form last year came with Aaron Ramsey on the right flank; he gave the side what Wenger would call ‘technical security’. This diagram shows how play almost broke down whenever Chamberlain got involved against PSG (courtesy of @11tegen11):
— 11tegen11 (@11tegen11) September 13, 2016
This is the key difference between Chamberlain and Iwobi. The former Southampton man is an individualist. You need a player like this in your team, but they can be difficult to incorporate into the collective. Iwobi by stark contrast, fits the fabric of the team like a glove and it is noticeable that he has the complete trust of Sanchez and Mesut Ozil. Chamberlain often looks as if he might as well be the only player on the pitch in an Arsenal shirt; he struggles to form any relationship with his teammates.
Both are highly talented players, but only one is in tuned with the needs of his team at present.
Featured image: All rights reserved by Emrah Partal