By the age of 21 it would be quite hard for most to say that they have become a regular fixture in the first team of one of England’s biggest clubs, but Arsenal have quite a few players who can.
One of those players is Alex Iwobi who, since breaking into the team late in the 2015/16 season has cemented himself into our squad, making 64 Arsenal appearances in total so far. Since making and scoring on his Premier League debut for Arsenal against Everton, Iwobi has also gone on to help send his country to this summer’s World Cup as well as scoring twice to help Nigeria beat Argentina 4-2 last December.
However, despite all of this, there’s still plenty of room for improvement for a player who is still developing. Playing as an attacking midfielder and mostly as a winger in past seasons, a lot of emphasis has been on his end product and with just eight goals and eight assists in 64 games its clear to see why. Over his time in the first team there have been numerous occasions when he should have buried certain chances but instead squandered them. On the other hand, we’ve also seen how tidy on the ball and comfortable Iwobi is in his passing as seen below.
With this in mind I feel like it is a major reason way Arsene Wenger has continued playing Iwobi this season. However, the continual use of the youngster has led to questions of whether he should possibly give somebody else a chance, as well as suggestions that Iwobi’s continued selection helped Theo Walcott in his decision to leave the club.
Much of this talk came after reports surfaced around Iwobi going out to a party a couple of days before our F.A. Cup embarrassment against Nottingham Forest. After being one of many who didn’t put in a very respectable performance at the City Ground, the reports emerged days before our League Cup semi-final first leg against Chelsea. In spite of this, rather than dropping Iwobi for Walcott, Wenger kept him in the starting 11 and since then Walcott has moved on while our academy graduate has really impressed me.
In that game at Stamford Bridge, Iwobi did come up with what might be the most embarrassing shot of his career so far, but other than that responded very well to the criticism he faced. He was one of the more active attack minded players as he occasionally drove up the pitch as well as ending the match having made a couple of key passes.
In the three games that have followed though, he has left his mark on each one.
In our 2-1 away defeat to Bournemouth a couple of weeks ago, Iwobi was one of the few players who could leave the pitch with his head held high. He struck a nice partnership with Jack Wilshere on his return to the Vitality and was very accomplished in his combination passing. This time he also had some end product as he fed Hector Bellerin a lovely, well-weighted ball in behind the Bournemouth defence which the Spaniard finished.
Our last two matches have seen us revert away from the 3-4-2-1 formation which has been used throughout most of our games since the back-end of last season and use a 4-3-3. In these games we’ve seen what Iwobi can offer to the team both offensively and defensively when needed.
Against Crystal Palace, we were given a look at what he gives us going forward in what was a 4-1 win. Instead of staying pinned to the touchline like the formation would suggest he would, the Nigerian spent most of the time in central areas. This in-turn allowed Nacho Monreal to bomb forward on his return and Iwobi to do what he’s best at, knocking the ball about in and around the box. His combination play came off time and again whether that was in the build up to Alexandre Lacazette’s goal or on various other occasions. We also saw a follow up from the previous week in terms of contribution as he bagged himself a goal. After getting picked out in the middle of a packed box he redirected the ball very tidily to keep us rolling towards that convincing win.
In midweek though, he demonstrated more of the defensive capabilities he had when being used in a 4-3-3. As we welcomed Chelsea to the Emirates for the second leg of the League Cup semi-final, Iwobi looked to be tasked with keeping Victor Moses quiet down Chelsea’s right flank. Over the course of the game he won the ball back for Arsenal seven times with five tackles (most of which were on Moses) and a couple of interceptions.
His work didn’t just help us keep Chelsea at bay down the right side though. On the hour-mark, he started the move which led to Granit Xhaka’s winner. Chelsea looked to be beginning a break up the pitch but Iwobi did well to pinch the ball off Pedro in midfield before spreading the ball to Xhaka who then went on to finish a Lacazette pass seconds later.
However, we did still get a glimpse of the Iwobi that has that room for improvement. On a couple of occasions, he gave away a few cheap passes which can be accepted but late on he gave us even more proof his finishing needs work. Baring down on the Chelsea goal, Mesut Ozil set the ball on a plate for an unchallenged Iwobi at the edge of the box but somehow, his shot went straight at Willy Cabellero in the middle of the Chelsea goal.
At just 21 years old there’s of course time for his finishing to improve but right now it just doesn’t seem like he has that goalscoring edge. Luckily for him time is on his side and he is surrounded by some great finishers at both club and national level in Lacazette and Kelechi Iheanacho who he should look to learn a thing or two from.
Looking back over this period though, I think Arsenal fans should be encouraged by Iwobi’s response. Facing his first media fiasco he has responded very well on the pitch and yes he’s definitely not the finished article, but nevertheless he is looking very promising.