Last weekend's North London derby between Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal was significant for Alex Iwobi in that Unai Emery resisted the mounting temptation to approach the game in a certain, and somewhat expected, way: by playing a resurgent Mesut Ozil from the off or utilizing the pair of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexander Lacazette from the get-go.
Also, given Henrikh Mkhitaryan gave, arguably, his best individual performance in an Arsenal shirt in the 5-1 success against Bournemouth a few days before the derby, leaving him out might have led to a few raised eyebrows. While the same argument could be used in defence of Ozil, the oft-held notion of the playmaker’s flawed work rate off the ball perhaps justified Emery’s decision.
With the Armenian’s participation against Spurs somewhat set in stone, electing to start Auba alongside Lacazette would’ve been to Iwobi’s detriment. When the Gunners’ top scorers are deployed in tandem, the Gabon international often occupies a wide berth on the left with the freedom to drift in-field to be closer to the Frenchman.
Another alternative could’ve seen Emery utilize a 4-4-2 diamond which, similarly, wouldn’t have benefitted the Nigerian given he ranks in the lower reaches when ranking Arsenal’s number 10s.
However, Emery chose none of the aforementioned and went with a 4-2-3-1 against Mauricio Pochettino’s 3-4-1-2, to the Nigeria international’s benefit.
For Iwobi’s part, the show of confidence to hand him another start after the Manchester City disaster was significant.
Having made the error that led to the Citizens opening the scoring inside the first minute of the encounter, there couldn't have been too many questions had he been left out in the very next big game away from home.
Playing the attacking midfielder from the start at the expense of Aubameyang made sense too, because he offers a bit more in and out of possession.
The frontman incessantly cuts a peripheral figure when the Gunners don’t have the ball for extended periods and given the game plan was to cede possession to the Lilywhites, leaving Auba out was logical.
Iwobi’s superior, and often underrated, linkup play which trumps most of his attacking teammates was exactly what was required for Arsenal during the initial stages of the encounter at Wembley Stadium. He blends that with intelligent combination with the overlapping full-back time and again to create chances for his side.
Since the unfortunate injury to primary right-back Hector Bellerin, Emery’s side have channeled a glut of attacks down the opposite flank, with the left-back often put in situations where he’s able to send low crosses into the box or find a specific target with a cut-back.
One such instance played out against Tottenham to nearly send the away side 2-0 up: narrowly positioned with the ball at his feet, Iwobi’s position allowed Nacho Monreal to overlap, and the Nigerian played him in for the cut-back which Lacazette, unbelievably, contrived to miss.
The Nigerian also created a huge opportunity in the game’s closing stages for Aubameyang, after the latter had just missed his late penalty, which Jan Vertonghen blocked expertly.
Iwobi neither scored nor assisted against Pochettino’s side, but he ended the match as one of the best players in an Arsenal shirt. One of the most improved players in the Gunners’ setup this term gets so much unfair stick, with many seemingly intent on watering his efforts down, yet again, he answered his critics in a high-profile bout.
I’ve never seen a more hated youth team player who’s giving his all get so much abuse as I have with Iwobi. Yes he’s not the greatest but he always works hard for the team. Shame I can’t say this about more established better quality players at Arsenal.— Arsenal FC (@LeeGunner82) January 25, 2019
Maitland-Niles and Iwobi are two Hale End products who managed to reach the first team, are versatile and quality squad members.— Arsepostate (@hahostolze) February 10, 2019
Yet they get consistent abuse.
Iwobi has done well to recover from his mid-season wobble, which culminated with a costly error against Pep Guardiola’s charges, to churn out good performances since that 3-1 defeat. He's probably been Emery's most consistent player in the last month.
The attacking midfielder was one of the best performers in their atrocious Europa League Round of 32 first-leg defeat by BATE Borisov, the reverse game at the Emirates, a Premier League fixture against Southampton, as well as last weekend’s derby.
Similarly, he was one of the few good ones in their Round of 16 collapse against Stade Rennais on Thursday night, a game in which he opened the scoring in the eventual 3-1 defeat.
It remains to be seen if Emery will keep the improving playmaker in the side for Sunday’s visit of Manchester United. In truth, while Iwobi has been one of Arsenal’s better players in what has been an erratic year, the head coach’s tactical approach against the in-form Red Devils will play a major role in how large a part he does play.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has utilized a 4-4-2 diamond in United’s recent fixtures against the top sides, and the expectation is the Norwegian wouldn’t tweak what’s worked in recent wins against Spurs in the league, Chelsea in the FA Cup and Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League.
Matching the visitors’ formation could be to Iwobi’s disadvantage, as Aaron Ramsey and Ozil are likelier to get a starting role in Sunday's battle for a Top Four berth.
Operating in that shape from the start shouldn’t be questioned either, owing to the fact that Arsenal’s best performance against a top side this season came with a midfield diamond vs. Chelsea. The Gunners won the encounter 2-0, with their first-half performance ranking as one of the best from any side this term.
Nevertheless, going by recent performances, Iwobi deserves to start against United. He was Arsenal’s brightest spark before going off early against Rennes while his more experienced teammates wilted.
Emery praised the playmaker’s attitude, composure and decision-making after his side’s 2-1 success against Huddersfield Town in early February, as Iwobi responded well to his own personal Man City nightmare a week previously.
"He's young, makes a big commitment and he has a good physical condition," Emery told journalists after the match.
“Above all he's calm with the ball in the attacking third [in order] to find better assists, finding the possibility to score with composure, or find the best option, whether that is shooting or dribbling."
Needless to say, those are attributes Arsenal require on Sunday if they’re to halt the seemingly unstoppable force that is Solskjaer’s Manchester United.