Michael Cox: How Alex Iwobi is shining a light in dim days for Arsenal
Arsenal are developing a habit of unexpectedly introducing youngsters to save their season. Last year Hector Bellerin and Francis Coquelin emerged as important first-team players from nowhere, and 2015/16 is the turn of Alex Iwobi.
Arsene Wenger gradually incorporated Iwobi in the cup competitions, with the Nigerian midfielder making his debut in the surprise 3-0 Capital One Cup defeat to Sheffield Wednesday in October, and starting four of Arsenal’s five FA Cup matches too.
It’s only recently, however, that Wenger has handed Iwobi Premier League starts.
From his three so far, against Everton, Watford and West Ham, Iwobi has contributed two goals and two assists. Amazingly, this is a greater tally than Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has managed over the last two years.
Hammering the Hammers
His performance against West Ham at the weekend was exemplary, especially in the first half.
Slaven Bilic made a surprising decision to play a 3-4-2-1 formation, and West Ham’s defensive shape was terrible – right-sided centre-back James Tomkins and right-wing-back Michail Antonio had no relationship whatsoever, and Iwobi showed great intelligence to drift inside from the left flank, into the pocket of space between the two.
He also created Arsenal’s two first-half goals, with pinpoint through-balls into that inside-left channel. The first was a simple but effective through-ball into the path of Mesut Ozil, who swept the ball home into the far corner, but the second assist was much more impressive.
Receiving the ball between the lines on the turn, Iwobi’s first touch popped the ball up into the air, but he took advantage of this by playing a delicate lob over the West Ham defence for Alexis Sanchez, who converted confidently. It was a textbook Arsenal goal.
I didn’t expect that level of efficiency or impact on the scoresheet
Iwobi is immediately impressive because of his sheer pace and directness, but he’s also demonstrated great positional intelligence from a variety of positions, having previously been played on both flanks and through the middle.
The efficiency at such a young age shouldn’t be underestimated, either: two goals and two assists in three league starts is remarkable. At 19, the majority of young attacking midfielders show flashes of brilliance but remain frustrating in the final third. So far, Iwobi is developing quicker than expected.
“It’s surprising how quickly he’s integrated into our game,” Wenger said following last weekend’s 4-0 victory over Watford. “He’s worked with us since the start of the season and he has grown, gained confidence and when he came in he had an impact straight away.
“He’s benefited from the fact that he knows everybody and they trust him as well. I didn’t expect that level of efficiency or impact on the scoresheet.”
Right place, right time
Iwobi’s ability to find the net is, in part, because he was unexpectedly deployed up front for a series of Arsenal under-21 games at this stage last season.
Chuba Akpom’s loan to Nottingham Forest meant Arsenal didn’t have a recognised centre-forward for the final few games of the season, so used Iwobi up front instead, almost out of necessity. He hit seven goals in five matches, more than doubling his tally for the season.
Iwobi admitted this experience changed his mentality, encouraging him to look to score goals himself, rather than simply laying on assists for others – although his performance at Upton Park shows he’s still capable of creativity.
Iwobi also impressed with a series of dribbles in tight central positions, in part because he always receives the ball side-on, not dissimilar to fellow Arsenal youth product Jack Wilshere. He picks up speed immediately after collecting the ball, and changes direction quickly to dart away from opponents. His overall pass-completion rate, meanwhile, was a healthy 84%.
Few established attackers are capable of shooting, dribbling and passing effectively, but Iwobi has shown ability in all three areas.
Time will tell whether he’ll secure a regular starting place next season, but it’s a long while since Arsenal produced such an exciting young attacker.