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Selfless Alex Iwobi must sacrifice himself against Arsenal

7:16 PM IST 20/12/19
Alex Iwobi - Everton
The Everton midfielder hosts his former club on Saturday, but should stay in the shadows instead of showcasing himself

by James O'Conners

When Everton agreed a move for Nigeria midfielder Alex Iwobi on transfer deadline day to the tune of £35 million, it felt like they were settling on their fall-back option after falling to get Wilfried Zaha from Crystal Palace

After the deal was confirmed, then-manager Marco Silva called him a “direct and skilful winger” whilst stressing he “always works hard for the team”.

In recent weeks, the latter statement has shown to be true whilst the former sentiment looks even more inaccurate than it did in August.

In Silva’s final two games in charge, Iwobi played on the right flank in what was ostensibly a 5-4-1 shape. He had to perform diligent defensive duties on the opposition left back; first Ben Chilwell against Leicester City and then Andrew Robertson against Liverpool.

At least in that shape, he had an overlapping wingback behind him and could move into the right half-space to receive in tight spaces to feet and progress the ball into the final third.

However, since the appointment of Duncan Ferguson and a switch to an old-school 4-4-2, Iwobi has had to make himself completely subservient to the demands of the coach and the tactical system.

Against Chelsea, he was on the left of midfield and had an incredibly industrious game in tracking Reece James’ runs forward from fullback. At times, his work rate was so impressive that it looked unsustainable, yet he lasted the full 90 minutes. 

Several older teammates, including another former Gunner in Theo Walcott, ended up picking up muscle injuries and have missed subsequent matches.

For all that endeavour though, he was dribbled past seven times and had little effect going forward, with just one successful dribble of his own and one shot assist.

Against Manchester United last weekend, Iwobi moved over to play as the right midfielder from the start, and once again had to put any of his creative instincts to one side to keep his coach happy. 

At full-time, ‘Big Dunc' praised his performance by saying: “Alex Iwobi was incredible, the distances he was covering, it was an all-round tremendous effort.”

Looking deeper at his performance, that was just about all he was given the opportunity to showcase at Old Trafford, aside from a short spell in the opening period and late in the match. In the opening 27 minutes, Iwobi touched the ball just nine times. In contrast, his first-half tackle count alone stood at four.

However, when Everton settled into the game and looked to assert themselves more, having 59% possession between minutes 30 and 40, Iwobi also came to life.

Right before the 36th-minute goal, he delivered two devilish crosses, and after his side took the lead, he delivered an excellent left-footed cross which forced Victor Lindelof to clear crucially with several Everton players lining up to finish. 

With more of the ball, Iwobi could influence the game in the final third.

In the second period, Iwobi’s lung-busting display continued initially, but he visibly tired around the hour mark as Luke Shaw twice got free, the first of which saw the full-back force a good save out of Jordan Pickford. When the United equaliser arrived, Iwobi allowed Daniel James to run in-field too easily and the Welsh winger found Mason Greenwood to score.

Ferguson responded to this by moving to a 4-5-1 formation, pushing Moise Kean into an unfamiliar and ill-suited wide role and shifting Iwobi inside as one of three central midfielders. He immediately looked more comfortable on the ball and one nice run brought a left-footed shot which extended David De Gea into a good save.

Since that outing however, Iwobi struggled in the midweek Carabao Cup game against Leicester and was roundly criticised by supporters on social media. 

Their expectation of a match-winning, dribbling wide player is misplaced and with the current shackles on him defensively, it’s no real wonder he failed to register a shot or a chance created in his time on the pitch.

The Nigeria man, who has revelled since his move to a number ten role at international level, is now on a run of 16 games without a goal and 13 without an assist at his club. What fans fail to realise though, is that he is currently sacrificing himself for the good of the team and to keep himself in Ferguson’s starting XI. 

Even a small percentage drop in defensive effort could see him dropped or hauled off the pitch, as was seen with poor Kean at Old Trafford.

If there is any single player who must be hoping for Carlo Ancelotti to be appointed, it’s Alex Iwobi. 

An attacking, yet adaptable coach who can often favoured a 4-3-2-1 or 4-4-2 diamond shape in the past looks ideal to have Iwobi playing in central areas instead of as an auxiliary fullback.

Saturday’s game against Arsenal comes at just the wrong time for Iwobi’s prospects of proving the Gunners were wrong to sell him, whilst the game should also provide a fascinating juxtaposition of Nicolas Pepe’s unwillingness to defend and Iwobi’s inclination to put the team first…to the detriment of his own game.