Arsenal Renewed by Elneny, Iwobi and a Right-Sided Sanchez

Iwobi Sanchez

Many believe Arsenal have blown their chances of winning the Premier League title for yet another season, and they’re probably right. They’re still 11 points behind Leicester City, and even though they have a game in hand, the odds are incredibly remote. In recent weeks, though, the Gunners have experienced an upturn in form, and through the inclusion of a couple of new faces, they also seem to have stumbled upon something approaching a decent formula for success.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that manager Arsene Wenger will move away from this formula, especially once guys like Santi Cazorla return from injury and moves in the summer transfer window are concluded. But as it stands, this “back-up unit,” which consists of fresh faces such as Alex Iwobi and Mohamed Elneny, is performing remarkably well.

Shifting the previously underperforming Alexis Sanchez to the right-hand side has also proved to be a clever move from Wenger, and in Arsenal’s most recent clash against Watford, this was readily apparent. Perhaps due to the Chilean’s presence on that side of the field, Arsenal absolutely hammered the right flank. In fact, 44% of their attacks originated down the right, in contrast to 29% down the left, and what makes this even more interesting is that it goes against the Gunners’ season-wide tendency.

In the EPL, Arsenal have actually opted to use the left-hand side a lot more. 38% of their attacking moves, across the entire league season, have come along that touchline, while just 33% have come down the right. That means they rank 18th in the league, according to WhoScored.com, for right-sided attacks, which is quite surprising considering how often they went to that wing against Watford. In their previous league game against Everton, too, they recorded big numbers along the right, using it 38% of time, and the reason for this seems to be Sanchez.

Indeed, Arsenal tend to look to him wherever he plays. The dynamic wide man has operated on the left for most of the campaign, which explains Arsenal’s season-long bias towards that side. Now that he has moved out to the right, however, the Gunners have made a habit of trying to find him along the opposite flank. And this desire to play in a different way has helped them, but to put it down to Sanchez alone would be overly simplistic. He might have been the catalyst for change, but the pieces around him have also had a say.

Together, all of these ingredients are reinvigorating Arsenal. When Sanchez floats infield from the flank, as he often does, it gives rampaging right-back Hector Bellerin the chance to overlap. Throw in Mesut Ozil’s lateral movement, which regularly means he ends up in close proximity to the wing, and Arsenal can overload the opposition in that part of the pitch.

Then, and perhaps most unexpectedly, there’s Elneny. He has become a key part of Arsenal’s componentry, not only giving them balance in the centre of the park but also moving forward to link up with those along the touchline. The Egyptian plays next to holder Francis Coquelin, as Arsenal’s right-sided central midfielder, and this allows him to use his box-to-box qualities. He therefore works his way into the final third, where he joins in with his teammates as they probe for an opening.

Against Watford, there were numerous examples of this, but the lead-up to Iwobi’s 38th minute finish was perhaps the most obvious. Here, Arsenal yet again attempted to overload Watford’s defence along the right. The energetic Elneny received the ball and, after seeing Coquelin make a move to get up alongside him, he played a customarily sharp pass into the feet of the Frenchman. This proved to be the thing that plunged Watford’s defence into chaos, as both Mario Suarez and Ben Watson, the club’s holding midfield duo, charged towards Coquelin. Meanwhile, at left-back, Nathan Ake followed Bellerin into a more central position, which meant that left-winger Etienne Capoue was left alone on the flank to deal with Sanchez. Only he didn’t.

Perhaps due to playing in a somewhat foreign position, the 27-year-old found himself ball watching. Sanchez didn’t need a second invitation, ghosting in behind Capoue to receive a pass from Coquelin. Now charging into the area, Sanchez quickly assessed his options before noting Iwobi’s run in from the left. The ex-Barcelona man delivered a crisp cutback into the path of the 19-year-old, who rippled the back of the net with a simple side-footed strike.

In many ways, this felt like vintage Arsenal. There was the slick combination play and the sort of short passing game that has made Wenger-era Arsenal one of the most distinctive teams in world football. But it also felt like something new, too, with Elneny and Iwobi having big parts to play in getting things going and finishing things off.

These guys have been important since their introduction to the first-team, and not just due to their talent alone. As far as Iwobi goes, he almost enhances Arsenal’s desire to go along the right-hand side, largely due to the fact that he almost always drifts in from the left. He’s a player who likes to operate in between the lines and, much like he did for his goal against Watford, he generally views the left as a starting point rather than a locked-in position. This is interesting in a couple of ways, not only in the sense that it gives the Gunners an extra presence in the attacking midfield zone, but also because it creates a certain freedom for Danny Welbeck.

Indeed, it allows the ex-Manchester United striker to take some positional cues from Iwobi, as when the youngster drifts in from the wing, Welbeck can then counterbalance that move by floating over to the flank. They showcased this understanding with great regularity against Watford, and most notably during two Arsenal counter-attacks within the first 15 minutes. For the first, Iwobi made an infield sprint as Alexis carried the ball along the right-hand side, something which drew his direct opponent, Allan Nyom, along with him. That left space for Welbeck to drive towards the flank, and though he received the ball on the overlap, he couldn’t quite get his shot off without it being blocked.

Not long after, the pair again combined, and as in the previous example, Welbeck made that run to the outside of Iwobi. The younger of the two then played a pass out into the path of his teammate. Welbeck then continued the move by sliding the ball back to Iwobi and, after taking a touch, the Nigerian international forced an acrobatic save from Hornets goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes.

It may not have gone in, but there’s still a real sense of cohesion to Arsenal in this alignment. Elneny has starred in his midfield role, breaking this season’s EPL record for most completed passes in a single match, with 122 at 96.1% accuracy, against Watford, while Coquelin has been excellent defensively. Bellerin has also enjoyed Arsenal’s more right-sided focus, as he has contributed directly to scores in his past two matches, with an assist against Everton and a goal of his own against Watford. That’s impressive for any player, let alone a fullback, and in a more general sense, too, this set-up seems to suit Arsenal.

Of course, many will point to the fact that it’s all come a bit too late in the season, with the title race now little more than a distant hope, but there’s still a lot of promise, albeit tentative, attached to this reconfigured system. The Gunners were incredibly accomplished against Watford, and with a deeper squad, a renewed approach and the promise of a few key additions in the off-season, there might just be something for Arsenal’s fans to smile about in the future.