Why Alex Iwobi will thrive in Arsenal's central midfield
For the first time in a long while, Alex Iwobi showed some genuine quality. He picked the perfect occasion. In Arsene Wenger's colourful send-off at the Emirates last Sunday, the Nigeria international stunned to the extent he almost stole his departing manager's spotlight.
Wenger, in the presence of Gunners’ creme de la creme, was expected to field his strongest possible eleven against Burnley. Beyond the razzmatazz, choreography and pageantry on display, a grand finish was imperative. The Frenchman, however, sprung a few selection surprises.
Having preached the youth mantra throughout his Arsenal reign, Wenger perhaps knew no other way. He was paving a path for his successor. Iwobi kept Aaron Ramsey on the bench, while Calum Chambers and Konstantinos Mavropanos were preferred to Shkodran Mustafi and Nacho Monreal.
Unlike Chambers and Mavropanos, Iwobi has enjoyed a decent run in the first-team. The two centre-backs have 15 Premier League appearances combined this season. The midfielder has garnered 25 games.
However, there wasn't much to justify Iwobi's preference. After one fine display, he tends to go off the rails.
A bulk of the bane is down to Iwobi. As an attacker, he doesn't score enough goals. His decision making and shooting are both terrible. The 22-year-old either scruffs shots or fails to get any power. Other times, he is timid on the ball, leading to sloppiness in possession.
Some blame, though, isn't Iwobi's own doing. His role at Arsenal is uncertain. As a talented youngster, blessed with pace, athleticism, dribbling skill and vision, he’s been deployed in a variety of positions.
During the 5-0 victory over Burnley, Iwobi played in a much deeper role alongside Granit Xhaka. Jack Wilshere played further forward, flanked by Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Iwobi shone like never before. There was no pressure to score, neither was there an obligation to create. He simply played for himself.
Iwobi was expressive with the ball. He pushed forward when the opportunity arose but retreated if Xhaka did likewise. There was space to cover without plunging into flying bodies and muddled minds of a typical Premier League penalty area.
Iwobi's distribution was superb. He had time to pick out teammates, shielding his usual indecision. The Nigerian orchestrated all Arsenal's good moves. His pass to Alexandre Lacazette enabled Aubameyang to score. He later spotted Hector Bellerin, who in turn assisted Lacazette.
Iwobi was also on the scoresheet, firing high into the net after finding space in the box. For the full 90 minutes, he delivered a complete masterclass.
Iwobi started brightly in a similar role against Leicester City on Wednesday night. Wenger's men were soon forced to retreat, though, due to Mavropanos’ red card.
Before being considered a top central midfielder, Iwobi must improve in some areas. He lacks physicality and could easily be bullied by strong sides. His defensive play also needs work.
Once he strengthens those aspects, Iwobi will become an important player at Arsenal.