Alex Iwobi is an Arsenal player who divides opinion like no other in the side. Conversations around the Nigerian usually revolve around his statistics, that is goals and assists. Iwobi has, without doubt, improved a great deal under Unai Emery. However, the jury is still out as to whether Iwobi is good enough for Arsenal. Here’s a look at why the Hale-End youth product, who has been with Arsenal since he was in primary school, is a player who’s difficult to understand but suffers from misconceptions.
Perhaps the biggest impediment to understanding Iwobi’s role in the side is his position. Iwobi has played in positions all over the pitch since his academy days. Starting across the front line and even as a forward, the 22-year-old has played both in midfield and attack. For the senior side, the Nigerian usually starts on the left-wing but is far from a traditional winger. Instead, Iwobi usually drifts inside or deeper into midfield, picking up the ball and moving it into the final-third before looking to play a pass either to an overlapping full-back or a midfielder.
Unlike his predecessor on the left-wing, Alexis Sanchez, Iwobi isn’t one to maintain an advanced position and wait for the ball to cut inside and shoot. The Nigerian, rather, acts as a link between the deeper midfielders and the attack, especially on the left flank.
This season, Iwobi and Kolasinac have developed a great understanding and at one point were Arsenal’s biggest attacking outlet. The argument around Iwobi’s lack of end product is valid but remains so only due to the misperception of him playing as a traditional winger. That isn’t to say that his finishing doesn’t require improvement, it certainly does. Iwobi shouldn’t be considered a traditional winger but perhaps he should be regarded as a creative wide-midfielder who favours drifting into midfield.
What do the stats say?
At the time of writing, Iwobi has four goals and seven assists this season compared to his tally of three goals and seven assists the whole of last season. With several games still to play, it shows an improvement over last season with the potential for more to come.
Statistics can be misleading but Iwobi’s stats with regard to expected goals(xG) and expected assists (xA) are quite good. As a creative winger, his end-product isn’t great but in the 2018-19 season, Iwobi 0.48 xGBuildup/90 illustrates how much he contributes to buildup in attack.
xG chain considers every pass that takes place before a shot and credits every player involved in a possession chain with the xG of the shot. An xG Chain90 of 0.82 shows that Iwobi’s passing is usually progressive and positive in nature. To his credit, the midfielder is always on the lookout for a positive, forward pass rather than opting for retaining possession by making a backward pass.
Statistics shouldn’t be used as the only tool when judging a player’s ability and this is where the “eye-test” is important. On plain observation, Iwobi is a talented player with a flair for nutmegs, stepovers and good ball-retention. The frustration around him arises when he is in possession in the final-third or the penalty box as he seems to panic or generally lacks any idea of what to do next.
This greatly affects his end-product and on many occasions causes Arsenal’s attacking impetus to break down, allowing the opposition to counter. Perhaps it’s time that Arsenal fans submit to the fact that he simply isn’t a goal-scoring winger and that it would be unrealistic to expect him to hit double digits either in terms of goals or assists in a single season.
Emery frequently selects Iwobi for big games. Especially away from home, when Arsenal barely have possession and need to keep the ball whenever they have it. Ball retention is the midfielder’s biggest asset and it would be more apt to judge him on his overall contribution to the side than end product alone. There are many games when the Nigerian is virtually invisible but it is important to remember that Iwobi is still only 22-years- old. Arsenal are in dire need of a goalscoring winger with end-product but the requirement for one cannot be used as grounds to slate a player with a completely different skill-set.
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