Why Alex Iwobi is Arsenal’s Connector

iwobi

Arsene Wenger thinks of Alex Iwobi as a connector. “Football is perception, decision-making and acting,” the Arsenal boss asserted. “The perception especially struck me. The perception he has of the game and the speed of his decision-making struck me.

“When you look at him at first there is nothing special there. But after when you look he is always connecting with others at a very high level and a very high pace. That’s why I think he is improving.”

It might sound a little harsh to say that, when it comes to Iwobi, there isn’t much that stands out at first, but there can be no argument that his ability to assess his surroundings is his major strength. The Nigerian sees things very clearly on the pitch, and this allows him to maintain the momentum in Arsenal’s attacking moves, to keep them flowing by reacting quickly to everything that’s unfolding in front of him. This kind of work isn’t always eye-catching, and it isn’t always notable either, but it’s extraordinarily important for a team that thrives on high-tempo passing football.

You only need to look at Theo Walcott’s goal against Chelsea for evidence of this. Here, Iwobi slid in from the left-hand side to take up a position in between the lines, which meant he found himself in a pocket between Chelsea right-back Branislav Ivanovic and Chelsea midfielder Nemanja Matic. He soon received a pass from Mesut Ozil in that space, before immediately playing it back to his German teammate. Matic was now drawn towards Ozil, so Iwobi had a little more room to work with. Ozil gave him the ball back quickly, and the youngster responded by cutting inside, spotting Hector Bellerin in space and playing a crossfield pass. Bellerin then squared for Walcott and, after a tidy finish, Arsenal were 2-0 up.

Throughout the build-up, Iwobi’s connective qualities stood out. He has a knack for interpreting the environment around him – the players, the spaces and the pitch itself – and making quick decisions based upon that interpretation. In slower sequences of possession, his go-to move involves vacating the flank and creating a passing option between the lines. This gives Arsenal a nice level of balance, because while he does this, Walcott, on the other side, tends to dart in behind. And from that deeper location between the opposition’s defence and midfield, Iwobi has the control to keep the ball close to him before moving it onto a teammate in frictionless fashion.

His work in the counter-attacking game is a little different, but no less effective. He can be that initial option to kickstart Arsenal’s work in transition, but he also has enough speed to get up in support of the likes of Ozil and Alexis Sanchez. Then, when he gets the ball, he rarely allows the move to fizzle out, something he showed against Chelsea when he ghosted in behind Matic to get the ball in between the lines, before sprinting towards goal and releasing Walcott. The right-winger may have failed to hit the back of the net this time around, but Iwobi, nonetheless, did the same sort of job he always does: perceive, move, receive and select a good option.

The 20-year-old’s statistics back this up. He completes his passes 83.6% of the time, an impressive figure for a player who operates across the attacking midfield band, while his quick reactions have enabled him to play 1.5 key passes per game. Throw in his 1.3 assists per 90 minutes, the best in the English Premier League, and what you’re left with is a player who can both recognise and execute the final pass.

He can also dribble and shoot, too, but it’s easy to see why Wenger is most excited by his ability to link the play. Of course, this isn’t to say he’s the finished article, and if there’s one thing he needs to work on, it’s his approach to the dirty work. “At the moment, because I’m not really the best at defending, [Wenger] says I need to treat it how I treat attacking,” Iwobi said. “And that’s something that’s really rung true with me. I love attacking, but I hate defending and it’s something I need to add to my game.”

This means he occasionally finds himself caught both out of position and too high up the pitch, but Wenger feels Iwobi has the hunger to work on this, having previously stated that he is a hard worker with a real passion for the sport. In a lot of ways, this can be seen in the way he goes about his business on the attacking end. Iwobi is an unfussy kind of player, especially for someone of his age, and one who prioritises good decision-making above all else. There aren’t many traits as important as this in football, and it makes him Wenger’s connector from the left-hand side.

Maybe, then, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that he’s made such an impact since breaking into the senior side. After all, the Gunners love players who can join the dots effectively within their high-possession system, and by cutting in from the flank and assessing the situation quickly, Iwobi does that better than most.