For all his pedigree as a manager, Carlo Ancelotti has never been one to excessively tinker with his team’s shape from game to game.
So, when the Everton line-up for last weekend’s trip to Craven Cottage was announced, everyone naturally envisioned Alex Iwobi in a central role within the Toffees' usual 4-3-3. That would have been the ultimate wish-fulfilment: there is a growing clamour for the former Arsenal man to be used in a more central role than he has been afforded since moving to Merseyside last summer.
The reality, however, proved quite different.
Instead, Premier League audiences were treated to the spectacle of the Nigeria international flying down the right flank in a wing-back role, as Ancelotti sent his side out in a 3-4-3. It was a curveball that lent an air of intrigue to the early kick-off, and Iwobi more than played his part in a five-goal thriller, tormenting Antonee Robinson time and again and playing an important, slaloming role in the Toffees' second of the afternoon.
“It’s not something I’ve done a lot,” he said to Everton’s official website after the game, “but anywhere I am told to play, I try to do my best.”
His deployment there was, of course, a matter of necessity. Injury to Seamus Coleman, as well as a couple of unconvincing performances from Ben Godfrey at right-back, probably informed the change of system, and it is a marker of Iwobi’s intelligence that he was able to slot in where he was needed.
Unfortunately, that intelligence has also been a hard sell among the Everton support since his arrival at the club.
In fairness, the outlay of €30 million to prise him away from Arsenal means it is understandable that expectations were high. For a club of Everton’s stature, that is a game-changer transfer fee; instead, they have been treated to a player whose strengths do not leap off the page, and who does not so much direct a game as flow with it.
As such, it can often seem like he only plays well when the team does, and within a system that is a work-in-progress, this manifests as inconsistency. So, perhaps this new role, based almost entirely on chugging up and down the line – repetition, that is – might be the best way for fans to truly appreciate the qualities he does possess.
It is a phenomenon that has been witnessed before, most notably in the remarkable turn of events that turned surplus-to-requirements winger Victor Moses into a title-winning lynchpin at Chelsea three years ago. Just like with Iwobi, it took fielding the former Nigeria international in a never-before-seen brief as a wing-back, but slowly a greater appreciation for the talented but unassertive forward began to form, culminating in a historic season for the Blues.
In the same vein, this reimagining of Iwobi could very well be the turnaround needed for a club career that seemed in danger of stalling. That is, of course, if the move is a permanent one.
For all that the 24-year-old excelled against Fulham, Scott Parker’s side are third from bottom and have the league’s worst defensive record. Also worth noting is the fact that, as the hosts came into the game more in the second period, Iwobi seemed to drift out of the game more and more.
“Sometimes, with my defensive position, I wouldn’t know where to be,” he admitted afterward.
There will be sterner tests to come, not least of which is Leeds this weekend.
Marcelo Bielsa’s side have struggled for consistency in terms of results since getting promoted this term, but they are one of the Premier League’s most peculiar challenges. Their relentless running and seemingly boundless energy always pose a threat, and they are unlikely to afford Everton – and Iwobi – the sort of room they enjoyed in London last weekend.
It remains to be seen whether Ancelotti would be willing to place Iwobi in the firing line like that, and whether the former Arsenal man would be able to hold his own defensively in that eventuality. Leeds notably attack a lot more down their left, and so it is likely he will have to spend the majority of the game minding his defensive duties.
That said, perhaps it is precisely Iwobi’s clarity and ability to beat a man on the dribble that Everton need in a game against a team that notoriously marks one-on-one all over the pitch. His involvement in the Toffees' build-up play was a particular highlight last time out, and going forward he has the tools to pose questions of his own to whichever of Ezgjan Alioski or Stuart Dallas is selected on the Leeds left.
It would undoubtedly be a gamble, but perhaps nothing will tell us more about the degree of trust Ancelotti has in the converted midfielder than the Italian’s willingness to take it.