Saturday, March 2, 2024

Charging Through the Midfield

People occasionally ask me whether these columns are more difficult to write in the summer, when Arsenal are not playing. My reply is always the same, ‘absolutely not.’ If anything, it is easier to write about Arsenal during pre-season. The fixture list is hectic and often two to three games can happen between articles. The season can be compressed and chaotic when it comes to formulating one’s thoughts.

The pace is so relentless that talking points whizz in and out of view and it can be difficult to pin them down and isolate them. George Orwell once said the biggest challenge in life is seeing what is balanced on the end of your nose and that is how the season can feel at times. In the summer, the pace slows and you’ve time to meditate on your thoughts and adjust your lenses.

If the football season is an endless tray of tequila slammers, then pre-season is a scotch and a cigar. In this space, on the margins of the season, your imagination can dance. Transfer rumours are so popular because they essentially serve as fan fiction. Transfers allow us to project to a brighter future, where the new man can cure all ills, shortly before the player ruins our reverie by playing actual games and demonstrating his real-life flaws.

Transfers are cool, but transfer rumours or any kind of transfer talk rarely interests me. That is not to judge anyone that is interested in transfer chatter, it just never floated my boat. I like the grass, the patterns of play, the tinkering, the stadium and everything around the match day. I like the game and so my imagination tends to wander towards the players I already know, that Arsenal already has.

Last week I wrote a piece looking at how Unai Emery can make marginal gains with what he already has. I cannot see a large squad overhaul this summer because I cannot see Arsenal selling the players they need to sell to generate a purse. Instead they will have to generate a purse from a sow’s ear, so to speak.

I wondered if pairing Torreira and Guendouzi in midfield might modernise the Gunners engine room. Alex Iwobi scored for Nigeria in the African Nations Cup, running from a central midfield position to do so. I don’t want to get carried away by the goal itself, which is a mere isolated moment. We have seen Iwobi score similar goals for Arsenal at sporadic intervals and there is no proof that he could score such a goal regularly. Unai Emery has not found a direct replacement for Aaron Ramsey in that five second clip.

It did get me wondering about repurposing the Nigerian as another type of central midfielder, however. If Emery wanted to move to more of a 4-3-3 shape, I began to ponder whether Iwobi had the qualities to form a midfield trio with Guendouzi and Torreira who, in my pre-season stoner state, I have also projected as ‘the answer’ to all of our troubles.

I have written many times in recent months that Arsenal needs an injection of athleticism into the spine of the team. It could also do with a ball carrier. Iwobi, Guendouzi and Torreira certainly gives Arsenal greater athleticism and I wonder if Iwobi could become the ball carrier the heart of the team has missed since Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere and Tomas Rosicky departed the club.

As a wide forward, Iwobi has lots of useful qualities, but he sorely lacks end-product. At the beginning of the 2016-17 season, he showed, to my mind, his best form in an Arsenal shirt, when he was the kind of creative water carrier to Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott, who took care of the end product.

Iwobi gave an interview at the AFCON, where he seemed to suggest that he felt more comfortable in the central compartment of the team. “Growing up I’ve been playing as an attacking midfielder, more central in the midfield. I wouldn’t say if I’m most comfortable there but that’s where I grew up playing. I’ve always seen myself as a midfielder but wherever I’m being told to play in the middle or somewhere, I will always give my best.”

Alex doesn’t quite have that bending far corner shot motion that wide forwards at the top end of the Premier League need. Nor does he have a propensity to cut in and shoot. Wide forwards either need to make runs in behind or else fashion their own shots and Iwobi doesn’t really do either. He is more facilitator than provocateur.

Iwobi’s ball reception is his most obvious midfield trait. He is excellent at receiving on the half-turn and spinning away from pressure- which are qualities the Arsenal midfield lacks. When Iwobi broke into the first team in 2016, Mikel Arteta spotted the same quality, “I played with him in the Under-21s recently and I was surprised he could play in central midfield as well.

“Forwards don’t normally have that 360 degree vision you need in midfield. Alex is capable of reading the game well, understanding his positioning and his body shape when he plays.” Iwobi’s use of his body helps him to link play because he has a knack of receiving the ball at the right angle to move it on quickly. This is an attribute typically far more prized by coaches than it is supporters.

Under Emery, that quality has been used in the half-spaces to find an overlapping full-back. I do wonder if it would be useful to help link the midfield to the attack. I want to be careful about trying to ‘fix’ Iwobi through a feat of imagination. He has always been an inconsistent player and there is a good to fair chance that inconsistency is just baked into his game, whichever role he plays.

Arsenal have seemingly made a new wide forward a priority this summer, with Reiss Nelson also having returned from a loan spell and Gabriel Martinelli, probably slightly earlier in his career trajectory, procured. Assuming Arsenal are not able to sprinkle lots of transfer gold dust on their midfield this summer, I think Iwobi in a midfield three is worth a try.

I don’t want to be accused of suggesting that rebooting Alex as a central midfield player is the ideal scenario or anything like it. It will not propel the Gunners to the next level, but there is a sense of getting real and understanding that the club is not in a position to do anything transformative at this time. Arsenal cannot buy super quality, but they can coach potential and they can seek to become more than the sum of their parts through better balance.

In a sense, it is a shame that Iwobi is away on international duty, which denies Emery the opportunity to experiment with this thought in pre-season (assuming he were so inclined). I fully understand why Iwobi frustrates a lot of Arsenal fans, largely because his end-product is not where it should be for a wide forward at a top 6 club.

However, I do think he has qualities that go unappreciated. As Michael Cox outlined in this piece, we struggle to appreciate Iwobi because we struggle to define him or compare him to anyone else we are literate with. “Iwobi seems more of a specialist; albeit a specialist for a position that doesn’t actually have a name.” Playing Iwobi as a slightly advanced number 8 might work, it might not, but Arsenal are very much in ‘worth a try’ territory.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto– Or like my page on Facebook.

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