COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
For Arsenal fans, the constant “will he, won’t he” rumours swirl around star forward Alexis Sanchez must now be verging on tiresome. The details: that his contract is up next summer and that negotiations over an extension are at an impasse; have not changed, yet the news cycle has remained unforgiving.
It is now perceived as something of a matter of pride, both for the supporters and the club itself. Manager Arsene Wenger has been adamant that he would have no compunction with the Chile international running down his contract and leaving for free, but that he will remain an Arsenal player for at least one more season.
However, one cannot read too much into this, as it could well be a negotiating ploy to strengthen the club’s hand, or to project strength. What is easy to deduce though is that Sanchez will be a huge loss; the Gunners have broken their transfer record already this summer to bring in Alexandre Lacazette from Lyon, but even that would feel woefully inadequate in the context of a Sanchez sale.
Arsenal could of course go right out and source for a replacement, but in truth there are very few players capable of the same overall output and application. However, perhaps the departure of Alexis may see someone already within the squad step up and have a breakout season. Alex Iwobi, perhaps.
Last season, it was expected that Iwobi would push on, having forced his way into the reckoning toward the end of the 2015/2016 season. He began the season as a certified starter, and at the high point of Arsenal’s early promise, was part of a devastating frontline along with Mesut Ozil, Theo Walcott and Sanchez.
The 3-0 victory over Chelsea at the Emirates in September was undoubtedly the most eye-catching result in that early season run. All of the recollection from that game centres on how it inspired Antonio Conte’s side to a system change, and, subsequently, the title. However, Wenger’s men were rampant in a riveting first-half display, and though Iwobi was the only one of the quartet who did not score on the day, he was named Man of the Match.
As results began to waver, the Nigeria international struggled for consistency. Eventually, as the season drew to an underwhelming conclusion, Wenger tweaked his playing system, withdrawing an attacker to incorporate an extra defender, and it was Iwobi who got cut. Following the 3-1 loss to Liverpool at Anfield at the beginning of March, he played a total of 68 minutes in the Premier League.
Arsenal’s fixtures in preseason so far have seemed to confirm the fact that the 3-4-2-1 will remain the preferred set-up, at least at the start of the season.
Were Sanchez to leave, however, it might work in two different ways for Iwobi.
First off, it might convince Wenger to revert to the 4-2-3-1 which he binned last season, reinstating Iwobi on the left where he had thrived, and simply plugging Lacazette in upfront. Alternatively, and more likely, as a straight swap for the Chilean in the two behind the striker, he could finally flourish in a role that seems tailor-made for him.
The 21-year-old has been used on both flanks, as well as in the centre behind the striker, but perhaps lack the incision needed to shoulder the entire creative burden of a team.
His lack of defensive rigour, however, as well as the fact he is not blessed with searing pace, make him not quite a winger either. He could benefit, as Ozil has, from a reduction in defensive responsibility. He is a more physically robust player than the German, and is more of a dribbler, two elements in which he closely approximates Sanchez’s unique qualities.
He does not score enough, and that is something that he would need to improve on, but it should be noted that Arsenal have largely played Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck upfront in this setup, two strikers more useful for their physical contribution to the team’s overall style than for their goal tallies.
However, with Lacazette ahead of Iwobi, there would be less of an imperative on him to fill in for Sanchez goal-wise.
While it is a long shot, it is one worth pursuing.
Wenger’s pursuit of Thomas Lemar has so far been a rather frustrating one, with Monaco quoting sums in excess of what the Gunners paid to land Ozil, who was at the time already a World Cup and Euros semi-finalist and from Real Madrid.
As the market goes crazy, perhaps there is no better time to trust one of the coolest heads at Colney, and let Iwobi’s showcase the full breadth of his abilities.