Arsenal progressed to the Fourth Round of The Emirates FA Cup with a mostly entertaining and, in the end, comfortable, 3-1 win over Sunderland. One of the highlights of the match was getting to watch talented prospect Alex Iwobi get 66 minutes of playing time with first-teamers in a match that meant something. Prior to Saturday, the only substantial first-team action the Nigerian had received was in the Sheffield Wednesday cluster in the Capital One Cup.
If you agree with me that it is nearly impossible to discern any sort of impressions from that awful, disjointed match, Saturday was the first real look many had at young Alex Iwobi. What he showed was good positioning in attacking play, smart passing, solid combinations, a couple moments of brilliance, and more than a few rash dribbles from someone not used to this level of competition.
While largely a winger or striker in the Arsenal youth ranks, Iwobi began the transition into central midfield about two months ago and looked comfortable in an advanced central midfield position alongside Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in what was functionally a 4-1-4-1. Iwobi and the Ox took turns dropping back to receive the ball from the centerbacks. This was largely dependent on which defender or midfielder was bringing the ball out of defense. Iwobi was almost exclusively on the left when Arsenal did not have the ball, as shown by the fact he was Laurent Koscielny's most frequented outlet and further by the fact Gabriel did not pass to him once.
As Arsenal attackers are wont to do, he did pop up in all areas of the pitch in attack. He did not inhibit the attacking play with his movement by running into other players or passing lanes, though he did possibly throw off Joel Campbell on a chance both were entitled to take on.
The ease at which he moved the ball around was particularly impressive for a youngster new to central midfield, much less first team football. According to the Dot Com, Iwobi successfully completed 46 of 48 passes, including 4 key passes. One misplaced pass was trying to squeeze a through ball to Oxlade-Chamberlain early. The other was more of a clearance than a pass as he booted a contested loose ball forward. He brought the ball forward dangerously multiple times through midfield, most notably playing the pass to Theo Walcott before his assist on Campbell's goal, and had an impressive through ball to Campbell in the 54th minute that could have easily been a goal.
In a match where all Arsenal really had to do was not give the ball away stupidly, Iwobi's composed play in midfield was just what was needed on the day. His ability to combine play well was on full display from the outset as he neatly played off of Olivier Giroud before the latter's blocked shot in the 5th minute.
If there was one area Iwobi really struggled, it was take-ons. Arsenal dot com says he successfully completed 2 of his 7 dribbles. Iwobi learned the harsh, but necessary, lesson that Premier League level defenders are not as easy to beat on the dribble as U-21 defenders. Luckily for the Gunners, Iwobi was only dispossessed in the attacking third, minimizing the risk of a quick counterattack by the visitors.
It was not all bad though, as his fancy footwork in the 19th minute skinned multiple defenders and led to a shot on target. This is an area of his game where, once he gets more experience, he will be more judicious in his attempted dribbles. While he does not have elite dribbling skills, he is capable of moments such as the one he showed in the 19th minute, and would be above-average in that area for a central midfielder.
Overall, it was a solid debut for the youngster. His short-term future is unclear as more injured Arsenal first-teamers return to the fray. A loan might not be a terrible idea, if players like Alexis Sanchez and Tomas Rosicky are in contention for first-team spots by the end of the month. As I have mentioned before, Iwobi lacks a standout, top end ability or skill, such as speed or dribbling, to be a winger or wide forward at the Premier League level. He does have a little bit of everything though, and Arsene Wenger seems to think his talents are most suited for central midfield going forward.
An education in that position at the Championship level would be beneficial, certainly moreso than his current U-19 and U-21 action. While he clearly has a long way to go before he is contending for a consistent first-team squad birth, his adaptability and calm demeanor on the pitch must have impressed Wenger who, through his squad selections throughout the season, clearly rates the youngster. He is certainly one of a handful of Arsenal prospects to keep an eye on going forward.