Arsenal fans would be forgiven for becoming somewhat impatient in recent weeks. As the transfer window trundles on for Gunners’ supporters, other clubs are going about their business with a gusto and eagerness that are leaving Arsenal in their wake. When pictures leaked by Granit Xhaka’s entourage broke on twitter, Arsenal fans were pleased by the early bit of transfer business by the usually frugal Wenger. However, as Cech proved last season, one swallow does not a summer make. Since the signing of the Swiss quarterback, Arsenal fans have had to endure tortuous and spurious rumours ranging from Lacazette of Lyon to a goal scoring wonderkid by the nickname Gabrigol from Brazil. Now with less than two weeks to the start of the season, alarm bells seem to be ringing as another summer of stupor looms large.
Three key concerns persist amongst Arsenal fans – a centre back to partner Koscielny, a wide player to aid the team’s goal scoring tally and a striker to lead the line and relieve the burden and pressure on the angst-ridden Giroud. Whilst talk of a new centre back and striker continue to gather momentum, there has been minimal talk pertaining to a new wide man, with most rumours and links being dismissed by the ever-coy Wenger.
Whilst it is not unusual for Wenger to keep his cards close to his chest, it would seem that there is genuinely no designs to add another wide man to Arsenal’s selection of attacking midfielders. With the supposed news that Mahrez, PFA Player of the Year, is open to a move, it would not be unreasonable for fans to question Wenger’s reluctance to test Leicester’s resolve. There is little doubt that the addition of Mahrez, a player who scored 17 goals and assisted 11, would boost the Gunner’s chances of silverware. Similarly, Julian Draxler – a player who scored 5 goals and contributed 5 assists in 19 appearances last season, would undoubtedly add a further dimension to Arsenal’s attacking capabilities. However, it would appear Wenger is choosing to entrust the responsibility of the last remaining attacking role to the young but impressive Alex Iwobi.
Many Arsenal fans may have heard whispers of Iwobi’s talent, they may have seen him first hand playing for the under 21s, they may even have heard that he is the nephew of Bolton Wanrer’s hero Jay Jay Okocha. But few would have expected the young Nigerian to take his first team chance last season with such coolness. As Wenger lost Oxlade Chamberlain to injury and continued to lose faith in the somewhat bemused Joel Campbell, Iwobi was offered the chance to impress. And impress he did. Performances and output were both of a high standard and glimpses of a partnership with the unfortunate Danny Welbeck seemed to be growing. At 20 years old, he was looking close to the finished article. He passed the ball with zip, took authority in the final third and came close on a few occasions to adding to his goal scoring tally. However, his imperturbable manner has not always been as stout as it is today, Iwobi acknowledged that confidence, or a lack thereof, was an obstacle he had to overcome to continue his development: "As a youngster, the main thing for me was confidence. I would always be in the background and I wouldn’t take the game or be who I am right now.” But the 20 year old’s performances and willingness to make himself available in tight areas, play the difficult pass and take responsibility in the final third have demonstrated a confidence foreign to many. The posture and straight-faced expression he exhibits is similar to that of Anthony Martial – a player who could prove to be the most expensive youngster of all time, if he fulfils his potential.
It is possible, that due to current relations between management and fans that Iwobi’s talents are not being exulted in the usual fashion. Fans are clamouring for high-profile signings – and the idea of giving a young, inexperienced winger the responsibility of a first team role has done little to appease supporters. And yet, after a season that disappointed so many, Alex Iwobi’s emergence was one of the few highlights. Here is a player with the attributes to become a genuine star. Whilst questions remain over Wilshere’s fitness, Oxlade Chamberlain’s end product, Joel Campbell’s inconsistencies and Walcott’s lack of footballing knowledge, and dare I say it - courage, Iwobi, at the age of 20, has the tools to usurp them all.
Although Iwobi may eventually reside at the number 10 position, he is currently plying his trade as a wide forward. He boasts a unique blend of pace and power but relies on neither to beat his opponent – rather using his timing, footballing brain and close control to better advance Arsenal’s attacking position. Often, young players rely on one attribute in tricky situations, be it their strength, their pace or their array of flicks and tricks. You could argue that Rashford, who had an incredible breakthrough season, frequently relied on his pace to get him away from trouble. Going further back, some would argue that Cristiano Ronaldo often reached into his repertoire of step-overs far too often when confronted by a defender. Even the impressive Hector Bellerin employed his unrivalled pace to get him out of sticky situations in his debut season. Yet with Iwobi, there seems a reluctance, or maybe more accurately, a maturity to his game that allows him to rely on his speed of thought rather than his quickness of feet - a standout attribute from someone his age. Not only does the Nigerian possess: power, pace and a trickery of feet – he is composed on the ball, both with his passing and shooting. A return of 2 goals and 2 assists in 13 games demonstrate a robustness of character and an equanimity fundamental to succeed at the top level.
Yet for all of Iwobi’s power, pace and composure in front of goal, it is his calmness in possession and his familiarity with Arsenal’s style of play that makes him an important component in Wenger’s plans. His education through the youth system at the Emirates has equipped him with the understanding in the importance of keeping possession, especially in this Arsenal side. Paired with the deadly but often wasteful Sanchez on the opposite flank, having a player who can be incisive but thrifty in possession is paramount to Arsenal mounting attacks. Iwobi has the ability to play key passes and keep possession, as witnessed by his pass completion rate (PCR) last season of 85.6%; at 79.6% PCR, Sanchez represents a threat to Arsenal’s defensive set up as he attempts more high risk passes which leave Arsenal vulnerable to quick counter attacks. Having that balance is vital to Arsenal manoeuvring their opponents into more susceptible positions, safe in the knowledge that they are not on the verge of losing possession. This may seem like a risk averse strategy, but given how frequently teams sit deep against Arsenal and attempt to hit them on the break, it makes sense to have a counterweight to the attacking impudence of Sanchez. This may also be the reason that Wenger has opted not to pursue Mahrez, who frequently lost possession for Leicester last season with a quite dismal 73.6% PCR.
So whilst there is no doubt that Arsenal require investment in their playing squad, the emergence of Iwobi may afford Wenger a reprieve from venturing into the market for a wide-man. The young protagonist has the world at his feet and he’s about to enter stage left.
Til next time,
Statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com.