Why do Arsenal persist with Alex Iwobi? It is a question many Arsenal fans have asked in cruder, more invective laced terms throughout this season. The young Nigerian has borne the brunt of supporter frustration with some inconsistent performances over the last 12 months or so. His development stands at a bit of a crossroads, so why does Arsene keep putting him in the line of fire?
The Gunners have been a tactical hotch potch over the last 3 years or so. New players with more experience than Iwobi have struggled to find consistency in a team lacking a clear identity. Xhaka, Mustafi, Lacazette and Kolasinac have all veered between excellence and incompetence. Iwobi is a little wetter behind the ears and he too has suffered in an environment that is not conducive to personal development.
Wenger persists with Iwobi, even during periods of fallow form, for a few reasons. Mainly, because Alex has qualities not present in other areas of the squad. Santi Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain and Alexis Sanchez have all drifted away from the starting line-up in recent years, while Jack Wilshere’s physical issues mean he no longer has the legs to carry the ball long distances.
Iwobi is pretty much the only player in the squad that runs with the ball at his feet. This is a valuable quality for a team like Arsenal, who require a mixed pallet of technical qualities to play attacking football. They need players that can move the ball long distances (Xhaka), players that can move without the ball for long distances (Ramsey), players that can manipulate space (Mkhitaryan) and individuals with an eye for a pass (Özil).
But they also need a ball carrier and Iwobi is the only player in the squad that can definitely claim to have that skillset- though Mkhitaryan maybe amends that shortfall further. The Nigerian has yet to regularly provide end product and this development point has been exposed in a team that has lacked goalscorers. At the beginning of last season, Iwobi played his best football on the left of a front 3 that included Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott, both of whom were penetrative players packing plenty of end product.
In that framework, Iwobi’s job was simply to bring them the ball in a kind of creative water carrier role. When Walcott was sidelined and eventually sold, Iwobi’s qualities became less pronounced- Alexis moving back to his preferred left sided spot also cramped Alex’s style a little. This season, he has been asked to execute a slightly more nebulous connecting role.
The Gunners have lacked numbers on the right hand side to support Bellerin. Iwobi has been tasked with starting more centrally and carrying the ball to the right hand side to add a little more symmetry to the team’s play. The problem is that this is a relatively undefined role that relies a lot on interpretation and reading the pattern of the game.
Essentially, it’s a role that is usually reserved for far more experienced players. Rosicky played this connecting role brilliantly for Arsenal, but he did not assume it until he was into his 30s. Ramsey briefly played it too when he moved to the right hand side of midfield for a short spell. Tomas Rosicky and Alex Hleb were, like Iwobi, attackers that did not necessarily boast great numbers in terms of goals and assists.
— Gaptrader (@gappullback) January 5, 2018
But both were essential to Arsenal because they allowed their colleagues time, space and gave them a regular supply line. It’s a barely perceptible role that requires a great deal of nous and intelligence to carry out- it’s a big ask for a 21 year old. Especially in a team that has underperformed for such large spells of the season.
Iwobi has had to contend with Alexis dominating the team’s attacking play, which made the patterns of play difficult to absorb. Sanchez was a soloist and as any rhythm guitar player will tell you, it’s tough to riff with a soloist. Likewise, he has not been able to strike up a fantastic rapport with Özil. Mesut’s game is built on drifting into space which can also make him difficult to read (more so for opposing defences, happily).
Arsenal’s creative game has been so heavily dominated by Alexis and Özil playing dual number 10 roles since Arsenal switched to a back 3 last season that it has been difficult for Iwobi to interpret how he fits into the picture. Often he has been drafted in to replace Özil and he does not yet have the end product to do that.
At the outset of the 2016-17 season, he was part of a front four. Alexis played as a false 9, Walcott as a wide attacker and Özil produced his best goalscoring form for the club by ghosting into the centre forward areas that Sanchez vacated. So Iwobi was playing with three prolific attackers. This season, he has either been asked simply not to get in Özil or Alexis’ way and try and get the ball to the isolated Hector Bellerin, or else he has been asked to play as a number 10 with only Lacazette ahead of him.
Iwobi seems to prefer to play on the left side of the attack. It’s a position that was closed off during the period where Arsenal played with a back 3. Wenger seems to have abandoned the three centre half system now, opening up the wide forward roles again, but the signing of Henrikh Mkhitaryan has seen the Armenian (understandably) preferred to Iwobi.
Alex Iwobi (2017/18) – Playmaking/Dribbling pic.twitter.com/DsLOUlKZaI
— Declan (@dribblatore) February 14, 2018
That said, Iwobi still needs to learn to partner with his left full-back better when he does play from the left. Too often he ignores the overlap or else crowds the onrushing full-back off the ball by staying a little too wide. But his optimum role is certainly the left of a front 3 alongside two end product heavy partners. Though he does partner with Welbeck pretty well, the two appear to have a natural connection and both played very well together behind Lacazette in the 0-0 draw at Chelsea in September.
This season has been tough on Iwobi, he has been asked to play a ‘freelance’ position in a team low on creative juice. The lack of end product around him has highlighted his own shortfall when it comes to goals and assists. (Most players don’t properly develop end product until they are around 23). The majority of young and developing players suffer in teams that are off colour.
The system has exposed some of his flaws and he’s not quite experienced or mature enough to provoke the mood of a sagging team. One of Arsenal’s many priorities this summer has to be a more experienced ball carrier that can play in one of the wide attacking roles to give the Gunners an injection of quality in this area.
This ought to take some of the heat off Iwobi and allow him to develop at his own pace. At the moment, Alex’s role has been completely re-imagined in a team that often looks confused. For much of the last 3 years, Arsene has relied on individual quality for results and there aren’t many 21 year olds seasoned enough to flourish in this unforgiving climate.
Iwobi also has individual issues to figure out. His end product is not developed enough for him to be a number 10. His passing and ball carrying abilities would be well suited to a central midfield role, but his off ball instincts are not yet keen enough to play there. His skills need to be anchored by more experienced teammates playing in a more defined framework. This season, the young Nigerian has been asked to forge an identity in a team of lost souls.
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