COMMENT By Seye Omidiora Follow on Twitter
“When it rains, it pours.” That’s probably been the feeling at Arsenal since their 22-game unbeaten run, which spanned almost four months, came to a grinding halt in mid-December. Since the 3-2 defeat by Southampton, Unai Emery’s side have won just twice in five games, while losing the same number – including a 5-1 annihilation away at Liverpool.
Injuries haven’t in any way helped the Gunners’ cause, but the alarming decline in performances of certain key players has been far more evident.
One player who has largely risen above criticism has been Alex Iwobi, who is arguably on pace to be the North London club’s most improved player in the new regime.
Admittedly, he did suffer a blip at some point in their 14-game undefeated run in the league, but has been excluded from the scathing criticism that’s recently befallen many of his teammates.
For a bit of perspective, the attacking midfielder has been the best player in his side’s last trio of games against Liverpool, Fulham and West Ham United. Unfortunately, a couple of those games have seen Emery’s side fall to disappointing losses which watered down the Nigerian’s impact.
Indeed, the Gunners’ winter collapse is evidenced in the mere fact that they’ve now lost an eight-point lead to Manchester United, who were seemingly out of the Top Four running following early season struggles.
The Manchester giants fell to a 3-1 defeat on the same day the London club lost at St Mary’s Stadium, which saw them end gameweek 17 on 26 and 34 points respectively. Fast forward a month and the Red Devils now threaten to overtake Emery’s men as they sit on 41 points apiece.
In mid-December, they had a goal difference of 14, with United on zero. They remain stuck on that number, with Ole Gunner Solskjaer’s resurgent side now on 12.
With this weekend’s opponent six points ahead in the table, Iwobi and co. just can’t afford another defeat which would leave them nine adrift of Maurizio Sarri’s men.
Expect Solskjaer’s side to wipe the floor with Brighton & Hove Albion at Old Trafford, so the worst case scenario for the Gunners at the completion of gameweek 23 could see them drop to sixth. Winning against their cross-town rivals has rarely been more important, and Iwobi, as well as his floundering teammates, can draw motivation from August’s reverse fixture which they lost 3-2 at Stamford Bridge.
In a game that saw several of his supposedly more important colleagues wilt, the Nigeria international played some top-drawer stuff at the home of the enemy and largely led a fight back that saw the away side peg Chelsea back from two goals down.
He provided the assist for Henrikh Mkhitaryan halving the deficit before scoring himself to bring the score before the break to 2-2. In a 15-minute spell that had Emery’s side in the ascendency, the playmaker also created two huge opportunities for the Armenian and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who both contrived to miss with the goal gaping.
Maybe the encounter would have turned out differently had they gone in at the break ahead. Perhaps they’d be three points better off than they are now and wouldn’t necessarily be staring at a must-win game against the West London club at the Emirates on Saturday evening.
With Mkhitaryan injured and out of the derby, Alexander Lacazette unprolific, Aubameyang recently inconsistent and Mesut Ozil now persona non grata, a large responsibility falls on Iwobi to deliver the goods for the always expectant Gooners.
The current precarious situation threatens to ruin what promised to be a good maiden year for Emery who recovered from a slow start to quietly steer his side into the continental reckoning.
Frankly, the Spaniard hasn’t helped his cause either, with so many recent bad decisions: constantly worrying about foe’s strengths, incessantly playing a back three against weaker opposition, playing square pegs in round holes, constantly getting his starting XI wrong and alienating his most creative player in Ozil.
Turning his back on the German playmaker has led to the North London side devoid of creativity in the final third, and consequently unable to break down dogged opposition. Iwobi can only do so much to be the side's sole creator, and that creative responsibility needs to be shared.
It’s somewhat ironic that having seen Gooners cry foul for years about not having quality finishers to put away the several chances created by the playmaker, they now have the creator estranged when they’ve finally invested in attack.
Be that as it may, it’s not all doom and gloom for the Gunners, whose home record against the Blues has seem them lose just twice (2012/13 and 2015/16) in eight meetings.
In recent seasons, they’ve got the better of their rivals, and one of those wins came in 2016/17 when Arsene Wenger’s side secured a 3-0 win over Antonio Conte’s charges, with Iwobi having a decent-to-good game wherein he created a few opportunities.
With the north of the city set to square up with the west of the capital yet again, the former needs yet another curtain call by its Nigerian performer if they’re to retain fading hopes of securing a Champions League slot at the end of the campaign.