Alex Iwobi has always been a player known for his potential, rather than his performances; a fan favourite whose Instagram stories and Big 17 hashtag see more minutes than he does.
Opinion of the player has always varied, for some he’s the Academy product that Arsenal is missing, a powerful forward with quick feet, for others nothing more than the team’s inadequate replacement for Alexis Sánchez.
At the moment, he’s the Gunners golden boy. Standout performances against Brentford in the Carabao Cup and an impressive 27 minutes off the bench against Watford have supporters calling for his inclusion in the Gunners starting eleven, and with good reason; he’s perfect for Unai Emery’s Arsenal.
In the Gunners typical set-up, Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Özil, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and Alexandre Lacazette all tend to want to occupy the same space in the middle of the pitch. Lacazette – the only one playing in his natural position – usually finds himself slightly higher up the pitch than the other three, but the congestion in the middle of the pitch tends to lead to an isolated striker who rarely gets the service needed for a dominant attack.
It’s a pattern that rang true against Watford, and that has been consistent throughout the season.
Arsenal's #passmap from their home win over Watford shows Xhaka as the impressive ball progressor that he is.
Torreira covered midfield a bit deeper.
Özil, Aubameyang & Ramsey operated on average in the same zone, but with lots of mobility and switching.#AFC pic.twitter.com/uEhNFkIxRA
— Between The Posts (@BetweenThePosts) September 30, 2018
Enter Alex Iwobi, the wide-man is just that: wide. He brings balance to the Gunners attack that simply isn’t there with Emery’s first choice attacking four. Although it was early in the season, Arsenal’s dominant offensive performance against Chelsea – despite the loss – was a perfect display of what that looks like.
Against Chelsea, Iwobi found himself on the end of two big chances, and he converted one for his only goal of the season. He also created two big chances himself, adding width and dynamism to the Gunners attacking three. It was more of the same against Brentford where Iwobi looked like the team’s best forward for most of the first half, and again the Nigerian international found the back of the net — albeit from an offside position.
Unlike the pass map against Watford, there is a clear structure to the Gunners side with Iwobi in it; a balance to the attack that doesn’t just present itself down the middle. It also offers clear, defined roles for the players that maximize their tools; for Iwobi that’s his distribution.
Iwobi’s inclusion has consistently come at the cost of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang this season, often substituting the Gabonese forward midway through the second half, but against Watford Emery moved Aubameyang to the right-hand side, allowed Özil to slide central, and fit Iwobi on the left.
It worked wonders.
Aubameyang was able to provide a willing offensive outlet on the right flank for Héctor Bellerín that stayed on the right flank. Özil, no longer shifted wide, put in his best performance of the season, notching his third goal in all competitions and amassing 71 touches and making 64 passes, 31 of which were in the offensive third.
All three of those numbers are season highs for Arsenal’s under-performing creative outlet.
Iwobi did more than provide an opportunity for others to succeed. He notched an MLS assist, orchestrating the counter that lead to Özil’s goal, and his 25 touches were just two behind Aaron Ramsey – whom he substituted in the 62 minute.
After the match against Watford, Emery said “I am very happy with him because of his mentality. He can play right or left, maybe he can do more one on one. Also, I want him to stay nearer the box to score and find assists for his teammates. This is the way for him.”
Iwobi matched the sentiment, noting “The main thing that the boss stresses with me is to get in the positions to score. I scored against Brentford but I was offside. I had another chance too, and I just need to convert them. He’s happy with me getting into those positions and the next step is to convert the chances.”
In just 168 minutes, Iwobi has created 3 big chances, scored once, and added an assist. Not only is he getting into the positions Emery wants, but he’s also making the most of his opportunities once he’s there.
Iwobi is making the case against starting him hard enough to deny, but when combined with the boost he provides Özil, Aubameyang and Héctor Bellerín, Big 17 is making a case for himself, in a big way.