For some players, international breaks are opportunities to rest. For others, they are a chance to grow. Alex Iwobi took the latter option recently, playing a vital role in Nigeria’s surprise 4-2 friendly win over Argentina.
The Arsenal man was instrumental in the final third, having a direct hand in three of his country’s four goals. He assuredly tapped home the equaliser to make it 2-2, before helping to set up the third, essentially providing the assist for the assist.
He then sealed the result, and capped off an outstanding individual display, by nutmegging Barcelona star Javier Mascherano and finding the net for a second time.
— Football Whispers (@FB_WHISPERS) November 15, 2017
Iwobi’s performance came at an opportune time, and may be enough to convince his manager at club level – Arséne Wenger – that he is primed and ready to start this weekend’s big clash with fierce rivals Tottenham Hotspur.
However, should he be called upon from the beginning of Saturday’s match, it will likely be at the expense of one of Alexis Sánchez, Mesut Özil or Alexandre Lacazette. The star trio have rarely played together this season, much to the bemusement of fans, and this may again be the case for the north London derby.
Wenger has placed a great deal of trust in Iwobi for previous important clashes with Premier League top six rivals and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him do so again. But what is the logic behind the Frenchman’s decision-making?
WENGER’S IWOBI PREFERENCE
Iwobi has divided opinion in recent years since he broke into the Arsenal first team, though his talents and potential are obvious for all to see.
He is an extremely dynamic and versatile attacking midfielder who possesses pace, skill and aggression on the ball.
In the past, Wenger’s sides were often accused of trying to walk the ball into the net, and getting in their own way in the process. Perhaps the Nigerian is a reaction to that – an individual result of previous team deficiencies.
Over the last two years, Iwobi has played an increasingly important role within the squad. And, at 21 years of age, he has already won over his manager at club level.
Evidence of this can’t necessarily be found in the number of games he has started – he has just four to his name in the league this term – but is suggested by the type of game he tends to start.
For the former, he got in ahead of Sánchez; for the latter, he got in ahead of Lacazette. With this in mind, it’s reasonable to suggest he may start again when Tottenham visit the Emirates Stadium.
WHAT IWOBI BRINGS TO THE TEAM
The most obvious reason for Wenger’s selection of Iwobi in these particular fixtures is his pace on the counter-attack.
Arsenal have taken a more conservative stance in big games this season, and that requires quality on the break. The Nigerian provides the work rate and vigour to help his team in all phases, as well as the pace to hurt opponents in attacking transitions.
The precision of Özil or the finesse of Lacazette is vital when faced with compact layers of defence, but with open space to exploit they aren’t quite so necessary. More important are the aforementioned qualities that Iwobi brings to the team.
Wenger discussed his admiration of the youngster in September, saying:
“I like the fact that he can play in tight areas, that he turns the game forwards, that he’s very mobile. We forget sometimes that Alex is still a very young player and that there’s a lot more to come from him. There must be a lot more to come from him because he has more personality in the game now.
“We expect him to be more efficient in the final third offensively, because you feel there are goals in there and assists too. They have to come out. Add that to the fact that he allows the team to play very well and he will be a top-class player.”
So Iwobi “allows the team to play well.” That’s a very specific choice of tactical wording, and it makes sense when considering the collective, more defensive approach Wenger has emphasised against the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City.
While individually, all three of Sánchez, Özil and Lacazette are undoubtedly more experienced and possess more sharpened skillsets, they don’t provide the same value to the system in certain games that the academy product does.
When Arsenal play Tottenham on Saturday, many fans will be hoping to see their all-star attacking trident take up the front three positions in Wenger’s 3-4-2-1. However, the manager may see different. Iwobi, surprisingly, has developed into his big-game player.