Examining Alex Iwobi’s wing-back performance against Fulham

Alex Iwobi Everton Chelsea
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Carlo Ancelotti surprisingly switched to a back three at Craven Cottage...so did the Nigerian give him a reason to keep the formation going forward?

The return of Richarlison from suspension against Fulham didn’t bode well for Alex Iwobi.

Given the Nigeria star worked his way into the picture after a tough start to the season to become next in line on the left wing before the former Watford forward saw red against Liverpool, the South American’s availability for the clash at Craven Cottage was worrying for the West African.

In a sense, the former Arsenal attacking midfielder didn’t make the most of the wide attacker’s absence, strikingly being withdrawn at half-time against Southampton and not making the XI since.

Alex Iwobi of Everton

It was disappointing for the 24-year-old owing to what seemed like a missed opportunity to play himself nearer to the first-team picture after his impressive showing off the bench against Brighton & Hove Albion in early October.

When the line-ups were released on Sunday, Carlo Ancelotti’s formation seemed to be a 4-3-3 with Iwobi featuring in midfield along with Allan and Abdoulaye Doucoure. However, the opening minutes showed that the Italian manager had befuddled observers, with the Nigerian instead moonlighting as a right wing-back.

With Ademola Lookman — the Cottagers’ most dangerous attacker — playing down Fulham’s left flank, it was potentially going to be a long day for the ex-Arsenal man in an unfamiliar position. The ex-Chelsea boss’ switch was seemingly made to make the Toffees more solid defensively as well as mitigate for James Rodriguez’s tendency to be caught upfield in transition.

Goals conceded against Liverpool, Southampton and Manchester United came about after the Colombia superstar failed to track runners down that flank, with moves eventually resulting in goals for those opponents.

Ancelotti James Rodriguez Everton

At Craven Cottage, however, the South American was afforded more protection with Ben Godfrey and Iwobi playing behind him, while Doucoure moved laterally to that side from time to time.

Be that as it may, while Ancelotti was apparently concerned about the space in behind Rodriguez, Fulham’s two brightest moments came after the home side played through the Toffees.

Fulham’s opening goal through Bobby Decordova-Reid materialised after commendable interplay among Harrison Reed, Tom Cairney and the goalscorer to bring the West London side level, while the penalty won in the 67th minute ensued following a fairly basic give-and-go between Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Aleksandar Mitrovic.

As for Iwobi, he gave a decent account of himself in a strange role, even if it comes with a caveat of coming against a side that started the gameweek with the fourth-worst attack in the Premier League.

Doucoure coming across to the right and Godfrey’s presence behind meant he was mostly protected during the game, although his defensive flaw almost cost the team a goal early in the 13th minute of the first half. Iwobi wasn’t aware that opposing left-back, Antonee Robinson, had darted in behind having had him in his sights as the move developed.

After receiving a pass from Lookman, the wide defender sent a low cross into the box but Decordova-Reid couldn’t divert it home, instead scuffing the effort wide. This was probably the only obvious error from the makeshift wing-back, who fared reasonably well against a generally poor side.

Going forward, though, the Nigeria playmaker’s talent shone through.

Per Fbref Iwobi completed a game-high four dribbles, while his progressive ball-carrying was the most purposeful in the Everton side.

Alex Iwobi - Everton

Two major moments demonstrated the player’s attacking side in a stopgap position: where he dribbled ambitiously into the Fulham final third in the build-up to the visiting side going 2-1 up and in their best period of sustained possession in the closing stages.

The latter was vital due to Ancelotti’s team losing their way after the break, as Scott Parker’s team forced them back. Unfortunately for Fulham, despite having the majority of possession after half-time, the quality in the final third was pitifully lacking.

Still, as the away team struggled to hold onto the ball, Iwobi was one of the few who actually did a good job of retaining it while many teammates laboured.

Also, the wideman’s early crosses into the box posed problems for the Cottagers. While stats show that he completed none of the five attempts, the West African delivered a few threatening balls into the box, with one in the 12th minute leading to a mix-up in the hosts’ area before Alphonse Areola claimed the loose ball.

There was also a beautiful low delivery into the box for Dominic Calvert-Lewin in the 18th minute but the England frontman was flagged offside having coolly slotted the lovely early cross into the bottom left corner.

All in all, Iwobi had a pretty decent outing in a makeshift role where positive play in his passing and ball-carrying hugely helped the team.

Defensively, barring a lapse in the opening 15 minutes, the Nigeria star was helped by his teammates who made sure he was rarely isolated and it was notable that Lookman had a brighter game after half-time following a switch to the right flank.

Carlo Ancelotti Everton

It was from there that the Anglo-Nigerian beat Lucas Digne fairly easily to assist Loftus-Cheek’s strike with 20 minutes remaining but Everton held on for their fifth win of the season and first three points in five games.

The concession of two goals after allowing a staggering 14 attempts in 90 minutes also suggest the tactical switch didn’t pay off as well as Ancelotti probably wanted, particularly against a struggling side in the West Londoners.

As for Iwobi, Seamus Coleman’s natural ability in that position means the Nigerian star won’t play at right wing-back every week. However, an encouraging showing in an alien role offers a solution for Ancelotti, even if moonlighting as a wide defender in future would provide sterner tests for the ex-Arsenal man.