It is an often repeated critiscism of Arsenal under Arsene Wenger that the club does not promote enough of their home grown young players. With the career trajectory of Jack Wilshere seeming to stall during his loan spell at Bournemouth there was a gap in the affections of the fans desperate for a young player to call their own.
Luckily for the fanbase the young attacking midfielder Alex Iwobi is continuing his impressive ascent to the first team at Arsenal.
Iwobi is a case study in the variations of a young player who has different growth and developmental stages than his peers. Having been with Arsenal since he was in primary school there was a discussion during his early teenage years as to whether he would ever develop in to a professional player. He had not developed at the same rate as some of his peers but his enthusiasm and work rate convinced the academy coaching staff to keep the youngster on.
In time Iwobi caught up and surpassed his peers going on to become one of the most technically adept young players at the club as he reached the edges of the first team.
The young attacking midfielder is the nephew of legendary Nigerian international Jay-Jay Okocha and shows a similar grasp of the technical side of the game. Iwobi combines this with a well-developed tactical sense and a work rate that has quickly endeared him to fans and team mates alike.
He made his first team debut in the 2015-16 season but it is this season that has seen Iwobi become a key part of the first team squad at the club. He has showed his versatility already having lined up in three distinct positions within the 4-2-3-1 system preferred by Wenger. He has played on the left of the attack, in the centre of the midfield and in the traditional number ten position.
If I had to make a prediction as to what his final position will be then I feel that he profiles best as a number ten with the balance and passing ability to become the focal point of the attack at Arsenal for years to come.
Passing and balance
One of the most important attributes that Arsene Wenger looks for in a young player the ability to be able to manipulate the ball in tight areas of the field. The French coach favours players with superior technical ability and it speaks highly of the coach’s opinion of Iwobi that he is trusted to handle the ball so often in the final third of the pitch.
Iwobi is predominantly right footed although he is comfortable striking and receiving the ball on his left. His position on the left of the attack allows him to cut inside in to the half spaces and central zone where he is able to use his vision to bypass the opposition defensive structure.
Because he is comfortable on his left the opposition fullback has to allow for the threat of Iwobi moving down the left side and cannot simply cut off the inside move.
Here we have Iwobi in possession in a tight are on the left hand corner of the Watford penalty area. He is immediately being closed down by two Watford defenders with another covering in case he cuts back.
There are three distinct options open to him with the first being the run down the line. The second is a square pass to Sanchez in a central area but again there are two Watford players closely following the forwards movements. Instead of either of these options Iwobi has the vision to use option three where he cuts the ball back in to a central area beyond the current defensive block for a team mate to burst on to the ball.
This is by no means the easiest option open and shows that Iwobi is comfortable under pressure and able to pick out the best passing option.
This is taking from the match against Chelsea earlier on in the season and as Iwobi picks the ball up in a more central position we can see that Chelsea are well formed defensively and that Arsenal have few obvious options in creating overloads through vertical runs.
Instead Iwobi identifies the weak point of the Chelsea structure and plays the ball out to Bellerin who is in space in the wide area where he will be able to penetrate the Chelsea defensive structure down the side.
Spatial and tactical awareness
One of the most important aspects of modern football is how teams create and exploit space in the attacking phase. Teams across Europe are adopting more sophisticated defensive structures and are now better informed and prepared for their opponents attacking tendencies. As such the capacity to move the opposition out of their defensive block and penetrate vertically is paramount for top sides.
Alex Iwobi has an excellent tactical understanding of the game and always shows a good feel for space wherever he is played on the pitch. An often overlooked aspect of his game comes with his willingness to work and make runs which open up spaces and opportunities for other players.
This is a relatively simple example. As Arsenal look to transition quickly from defence to attack Iwobi finds himself running to support the ball on the right hand side of the pitch. As the Watford defender is attracted out to press the man in possession this opens up a large area of space on the right hand side of the field.
Iwobi recognises the space and looks to attack it immediately identifying that the best way to attack the opposition is by hitting them quickly instead of supporting the ball from a deeper position and looking to reset the attack.
On this occasion the ball is on the left side of the pitch and the Burnley defensive block is shifting over to cut out the space on that side of the field.
Iwobi makes a selfless run behind the man in possession and down the left hand side of the field. In making this run Iwobi creates a passing option for the man with the ball to continue with the ball down the left hand side of the field.
His movement also creates space centrally for his teammates as the Burnley block is pulled further over. This allows for the ball to be switched in to the central areas of the field.
Ability on the ball
As already discussed above one of the real strengths of Iwobi’s game is his technical ability in tight areas of the field. As well as allowing the young midfielder to resist the opposition pressing traps and find the best passing option for his team it also allows Iwobi to showcase his ability in running with the ball and driving at the defence.
His balance and pace make it very difficult for opposition defences to adequately plan for him as he is able to perform so many different attacking movements in the final third.
As Iwobi takes possession on the left hand side of midfield he is immediately closed down by two opposition players. Instead of trying to take the ball wide where the lane is cut off by an opponent Iwobi instead drives inside having identified a large pocket of space that he can move in to.
Having accessed this space Iwobi is then confronted by a solid defensive structure with seven opposition defenders between him and the goal.
Instead of shooting from distance or trying to force his way in between the defensive structure he instead has the presence of mind to read the attacking movement of the lone striker who times a run off the shoulder of the centre back in behind the defensive line.
Iwobi is able to time and execute the pass whilst running in a different direction and Arsenal have a clear chance on goal.
This time Iwobi is about to collect the ball in a 50-50 challenge in the centre of the field. Instead of shielding the ball or looking to play backwards Iwobi instead shows his imagination as he flicks the ball over his head and that of the defending player in order to allow Iwobi to move forwards and attack the space.
Now faced and isolated against a second defender Iwobi shows again his capacity to identfy and attack pockets of space. He takes advantage of the poor body shape of his opponent and puts him off balance with a stepover faking to move to the left.
As the defender is on the back foot Iwobi pushes off and bursts in towards the central space.
Finally having again been confronted by a solid defensive block Iwobi manages again to identify the correct pass whilst moving quickly and slips the ball through the defensive structure for his striker to run on and have a clear goalscoring opportunity.
For a young player making his first real impression on the first team squad you cannot help but be impressed by the progress that Iwobi has made this season. His flexibility in the final third has without doubt been extremely useful to Wenger as the coach has utilised the young midfielder in a variety of positions in his young career so far.
I mentioned earlier that I believe that Iwobi profiles as a traditional number ten going forwards. His balance and spatial awareness combined with his ability on the ball make him the ideal candidate to become the focal point for the side going forwards.