They say that ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’. If Sunday’s showing was anything to go by, Arsenal fans should be praying to whichever deity that they have faith in that Alex Iwobi doesn’t disappear anytime soon.
Iwobi put in a performance that is required from a wide player in Arsenal’s attacking schemes, yet is rarely seen from others given the chance to play. His non-stop movement and work-rate were pivotal to all of Arsenal’s good play.
Arsenal are at their most dangerous when Mesut Özil has the ball, in space, and thirty yards from goal. For this to happen, your wingers and striker need to keep the opposition defence as occupied as possible, in order to open up space in front of them for Özil. For the likes of Alexis Sanchez, this comes naturally. For all our other wingers not named Iwobi… not so much.
Joel Campbell plays too narrow, Aaron Ramsey wants to be within five yards of Özil at all times, whilst Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott’s idea of creating space is to stand as close to the touchline as possible and cut in from the right for a through ball, even whilst the opposition are set up 15 yards from their own goal.
What separates Iwobi from everyone else is his ability to make space for others, both on and off the ball. He has a knack of drawing the attention of multiple defenders for long enough to let others find space, yet also recognise when those same defenders are ignoring him and then be in a good place to receive the ball. He and Özil would often use each other as decoy runners to make space for themselves, leaving the defence chasing shadows.
But the biggest takeaway from the game against Crystal Palace shouldn’t be what happened when Iwobi was on the pitch, but what happened after he was substituted with fifteen minutes to go. Aaron Ramsey was brought on as his replacement, and what little attacking movement Arsenal had with the young Nigerian on the pitch, disappeared with him.
With Ramsey playing as a third central midfielder masquerading as a right winger, Arsenal became completely static. Watching Arsenal pass the ball from back to front to back to front to back to front was like watching a 10-year-old kid playing a pinball machine and pushing every button he could in the hope that something would happen.
But nothing happened.
Arsenal would spend minutes in possession of the ball, only to end up with Alexis taking a shot from twenty yards out because nothing else was on. The only player who was making any effort to get into space was Hector Bellerin, but even he had an off-day, providing a rather impressive impression of Emmanuel Eboue’s run of games at right-wing for the club.
At the moment, Alex Iwobi is critical to the way Arsenal play. With him, and with the desire to press high up the field like they did for the goal, Arsenal are extremely dangerous going forward. Without him, they look pedantic and uninterested.