COMMENT By James O'Connor
It was a clash that exposed the Gunners’ limitations, and while Nigeria wideman Alex Iwobi struggled to impose himself on the contest, his opposite man—Raheem Sterling—dazzled for the hosts.
These two players share several similarities in terms of positional versatility; both are right-footed attacking players, capable of playing to good effect on either wing or in a central role as a No. 10.
In this game, both were selected on the flank, but their roles had significant differences.
Arsenal used a defensive 4-4-2 shape, with Sead Kolasinac and Alex Iwobi in the wide areas as defensive wingers.
Their teamsheet made it look like a 3-4-3 shape with Iwobi joining the front two, but that’s not how the game panned out.
On City’s side, their shape in possession resembled more of a 3-4-3, as Fernandinho pushed forward from his central defensive starting point into a more customary midfield role.
Sterling had been instructed to play on the left touchline during City’s build up, in order to free space centrally for David Silva and Kevin De Bruyne to operate.
In the first minute of the game, Iwobi was seen trying to tuck in to assist his central midfielders (outnumbered three versus two), and then sprinting out wide to double up on Sterling.
When the ball broke to Iwobi, he was caught in possession, an error that led directly to City’s opening goal.
Immediately evident was just how demanding a role this was for the Nigerian; not only did he have to protect veteran Stephan Lichtsteiner, who found himself drawn narrow to engage Silva in the half-space, but he also had to tuck in to try to thicken the central midfield.
Here, however, the battle had become four vs. two, with Fernandinho further overloading Arsenal’s duo.
Iwobi’s role also required him to engage Aymeric Laporte when the France defender stepped forward with the ball.
The West African’s role with the ball was to use his dribbling ability to start counter attacks or to provide width when Arsenal had prolonged spells of possession in City’s half.
With the home side having 59 percent of possession, the latter situations were rare, and when they did occur, Iwobi had no angles to find teammates in such a flat, defensive shape.
City’s shape cut out the channels for Arsenal’s front two to run into, whilst the lack of a number ten or support from full-back left Iwobi isolated and running up blind alleys.
By the 65th minute, the 22-year-old was taken off, having made no key passes and having been dispossessed twice, including for the opening goal.
His demanding role was impossible to maintain for 90 minutes and he was clearly tiring by the time of his withdrawal.
For City, Sterling enjoyed a relative breeze of a game as the hosts’ possession and then counter-pressing meant he rarely had to enter his own half to defend, and he laid on two fine assists going forward.
He ended the game with five completed dribbles, four chances created and three shots attempted.
The contrast between these players could not have been starker; Sterling is two and a half years older than Iwobi and has a far greater experience, having played more matches, in better teams and under attack-mind coaches like Brendan Rodgers, Manuel Pellegrini and Pep Guardiola.
Despite their ostensible similarities, attempting to truly compare these two players is grossly unfair, especially when they came into direct competition in this game on the same flank.
This match was almost entirely in Arsenal’s half, with Iwobi expected to nullify Sterling, and still somehow muster the energy to get 70 yards up the pitch to be a threat himself.
Iwobi has had a mixed season, and as Arsenal’s only real natural wide player, he is often the one sacrificed when Unai Emery plays winger-less formations like 3-5-2 or the 4-4-2 diamond.
When he does play from the start, he invariably has to protect Arsenal’s plethora of defensively poor full-backs, whilst also trying to provide width in attack.
When used on the left flank, he can at least use his physical strength to keep the ball in tight spaces, protecting it with his left arm whilst controlling the ball on his stronger right foot as he cuts inside.
When he is shunted over the right, coming inside is more difficult and he lacks the sheer pace of a Sterling type to beat players on the outside.
Arguably, he is more suited to playing centrally or in the left half-space, but Emery’s constant tinkering with his team’s shape and tactics means that Iwobi is going to continue having to sacrifice his natural game for the team.
Sterling has no such issue – all he has to do is focus on scoring, making goals and pressing high up the pitch.
The genius of Guardiola’s football is that despite all the micro tactical details, the game is made simple for the players. To compare these two talented forwards without tactical context is simply unfair.