At the sound of David Coote’s final whistle after Everton’s 1-1 draw with Leicester City on Wednesday, Alex Iwobi must have been silently pleased with the team’s late goal and his continued run in the side.
For the fifth game running, the Nigeria international started and completed a game under Frank Lampard, further demonstrating his growing importance at Goodison Park. It was certainly a first for the former Arsenal man who has been in and out of the Everton side since moving from North London in the summer of 2019.
Only in the 19/20 campaign had he hitherto played for the entirety of games in succession, featuring in and completing 90 minutes for three consecutive games preceding Carlo Ancelotti’s arrival on Merseyside.
While he did start for seven games on the trot at one point last season under the Italian, many of those games were at wing-back, a position previously alien to the Super Eagle but one he somewhat flourished in, nonetheless.
There was always the sense he did not have the trust of preceding head coaches, a sentiment that has been put aside under Lampard.
“Alex is one I rely on. We have moved his position and he has offered so much,” Lampard said after the Toffees’ 1-0 win over Manchester United on April 9.“I think you could feel the crowd’s reaction towards him today with his energy and qualities. I don’t know how many kilometres he has run this week but he’s done it again."
Playing in a withdrawn role in a midfield three, the 25-year-old is no longer tasked with hugging the lines at wing-back with the license to drive into the final third or playing in the front three with the responsibility to score and assist, the latter causing frustration to a fanbase that censured the inconsistency in his end product.
Rather, the Nigerian is an effective presence in the left half-space, acting as a facilitator in the side’s build-up and an effective link man.
His inclination to carry the ball from deep has been enhanced and it was no surprise he ranked third for progressive carries against Brendan Rodgers’ men, notably outdoing every teammate for carries into the final third in the 1-1 draw.
Per Fbref, the 25-year-old has completed every attempted dribble in the last four games and has been involved in 25 shot-creating actions since Lampard took charge, averaging 3.13 SCAs under the erstwhile Chelsea boss. Strikingly, this was 1.54 shot-creating actions preceding the managerial change, further validating a greater involvement and improvement in performance of late.
Off the ball, Iwobi’s industry is recognisable and the fact he has consistently racked up a high volume of pressures in the last five games is commendable. Against Leicester, no Everton player outranked the midfielder’s 31 pressures, and neither did any opponent.
The fact his strengths in possession are magnified playing in midfield, and weaknesses concealed, is credit to Lampard whose utilisation of the ex-Arsenal man is proving to be one positive in the Englishman’s Jekyll and Hyde spell on Merseyside.
Facing Liverpool at Anfield is a different kettle of fish, though, especially at a ground where the Reds have won their last 11 in the league, conceding just twice in that run.
Throw in Everton’s wretched away record in 2021/22 which has seen them lose 11 of their 15 games on their travels, and the magnitude of the task in Sunday’s Merseyside derby is likely to scare Evertonians.
Their sole away success came way back in a 2-0 win over Brighton & Hove Albion in August, but they have gone on to lose 11 of their next 13 on their travels. Interestingly, though, both stalemates came in 1-1 draws at Manchester United and Chelsea, and a similar result at the red half of Merseyside will be welcome.
It is an outcome that will gratify the Toffees who have not lost both games in this rivalry since 2016/17, an odd observation due to Liverpool’s dominance in this fixture. Preventing a Reds double for the fifth season running will be just what the doctor ordered.
In their fight to survive relegation, a draw will be a point gained. Three will be a dream, but one the away side could believe in having won last season’s corresponding fixture, albeit under far different circumstances.
Whatever happens at Anfield on Sunday, you expect Iwobi to have a great part to play in helping the underdogs play through the Liverpool press and make an impact between the lines.
Whether by design or accident, the Nigerian has finally found himself playing just about the perfect role for the first time in years at Everton.
Long may it continue!