Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Hero In A Half Space

Two and a half years ago, I wrote a piece lamenting Arsenal’s ongoing inability to replace Robert Pires. The feeling has remained pervasive for much of the two and a half years since it was published. There has been understandable clamour for a striker during the majority of this period and it doesn’t take a footballing soothsayer to see why.

I too felt that Arsenal needed a top class striker- that feeling has not entirely evaporated, despite Alexis’ impressive interpretation of the role recently. But I always felt that the squad had internal solutions which were at least worth a look. However, a team like Arsenal needs playmakers and I could not see any a good quality wide playmaker in the squad, ergo, I have regarded it our top transfer priority for some years.

As it turns out, Wenger finally has a wide playmaker worthy of the name and, to my surprise, he did not acquire him through the market, but the academy. Alex Iwobi has very quickly become a very important player for Arsenal. There is usually an element of felicity when a young talent breaks into the first team. Often, injuries hand players their chance, such was the fate that kindly befell Hector Bellerin. But sometimes you just happen to possess a lot of the qualities that the team lacks. That has very much been the case for Iwobi.

Iwobi has become an important component of an attack that is now based on movement and combinations. Moving and combining happen to be two of the things that the Nigerian does best. He acts as a connector for the team’s attacking game, earlier this season Arsene Wenger gushed about “the perception he has of the game and the speed of his decision making.” A gear change in the Gunners’ attack has seen them seek to exploit ‘half spaces’, which Anam touched on in his column this week.

Essentially, these are just the channels of space between the centre and the extremities of the pitch. Theo Walcott enjoys attacking these spaces high up the field, in the corridor between full-back and centre half. As I wrote a few weeks back, Walcott’s resurgence is largely down to an attack that has been reconfigured to favour his attributes and Iwobi’s presence is a big part of that. Without wishing to over-egg the comparative pudding, Iwobi is the Pires (minus the goals at this stage) to Walcott’s Ljungberg. One is a provocateur and the other a finisher.

Iwobi takes care of the football in the half space on the left, so that Theo can make runs in the half space on the right. Mesut Özil’s modus operandi has always been to move into space, wherever that may appear. With Iwobi, Alexis and Walcott buzzing around in these avenues, Özil has found that the space is now in the centre, which partially explains his increased goal scoring prowess. Iwobi’s presence as a secondary playmaker takes a lot of the pressure off the German in the creative sense, so Özil becomes a cog in the machine, rather than the machine itself.

Creativity is effectively the precursor to goal scoring, so it is just as desirable to share creativity as it is to share goals. Every playmaking sheriff needs deputies, especially in a team that relies on fast ball circulation to the extent that Arsenal does. Pires and Henry were just as capable of an assist as Bergkamp. Hleb and Rosicky acted as creative allies for Fabregas. The current setup has Özil, Cazorla, Iwobi and Alexis operating in different areas, which has improved their creative balance. Not least because all of these players interpret space well in different areas of the pitch.

Wenger praised Alex’s “perception” and this is because he takes up clever positions to receive the ball, usually in the ‘half spaces’ I have just talked about. When Arsenal have possession in their own half and are looking to build an attack, he often veers infield about 15 yards in between the opposition’s defensive and midfield lines. This immediately hands the opposition a quandary, because drawing somebody out to mark him creates a hole somewhere in their defensive setup.

Once in possession, Iwobi has a little of the Alex Hleb about him with his low centre of gravity and ability to keep the ball. Unusually for a young flair player (and relative of Jay Jay Okocha), he rarely over-elaborates. In fact, there is a little of the simplicity of Tomas Rosicky in his game too. Move arse, get ball, move ball, move arse. He enjoys excellent working relationships with the team’s two best players- Özil and Alexis. That’s a pretty quick way to carve out your niche in this team. That said, I still would like to have seen Arsenal move for a slightly more experienced wide playmaker during the summer.

At just 20, Iwobi has already become so vital to the way that Arsenal’s attack functions, with no genuine like for like replacement. He’s ostensibly competing for a spot with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain at this moment in time. In fairness, the Ox has shown some greens shoots in recent weeks. Whether by instruction or intuition, he too has moved his play in field by about 10-15 yards to take advantage of the corridors of space in the channels, as his first goal against Reading on Tuesday demonstrates.

However, good player though he is, with useful attributes, Chamberlain is a very different player to Iwobi. He can be very good in individual aspects of the game, but struggles to combine with others. Often, he operates outside of the structure of the attack as a kind of ‘wild card.’ Much like Giroud, this can make him a useful option from the bench, but often I think his inconsistency is a symptom of his failure to tune into the collective in a meaningful way.

Iwobi is still a very young player learning the ropes. He will experience dips in form, indeed, he probably isn’t playing quite as well now as he was a month ago. He also increases Nacho Monreal’s workload significantly. Iwobi needs to learn that it is not enough just to jog back towards his own goal and punch the clock. He needs to make effective defensive contributions beyond getting a better view of the opposition attack unfolding. While Arsenal’s attackers have a jolly good time in the half spaces, poor old Nacho is left to fend for the extremity of the pitch on his lonesome.

I am a little nervous about a 20 year old still learning the game becoming such a crucial part of Arsenal’s attacking play without a viable working replica in the squad. Potentially, the current front 3 of Alexis, Walcott and Iwobi is a little fragile in my view, in that their success is interdependent. But I guess we will discover how well founded those fears are as the season progresses. For now, Arsene seems to have conjured up another internal solution for a hitherto yawning gap in his team.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto 

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