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Alex Iwobi deserves a starting role

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He’s been the standout performer of Arsenal’s B-list games, but having made an impact against Watford, it’s time to bring Alex Iwobi back into the fold.

Chelsea v Arsenal - Premier League Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Having scored and assisted in his first two hours of football under Unai Emery, Alex Iwobi was probably unlucky to be dropped, a result of Emery cramming Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette into the same time, with Lacazette replacing Iwobi at halftime against West Ham. Iwobi hasn’t started a Premier League match since, and had to bide his time with cameos and starts in Arsenal’s B-list games, the Europa League home group stage match against Vorskla and the Worthington Carling Coca-Cola Littlewoods Milk Carabao Cup tie against Brentford. In the latter two games, Iwobi shone, adding something that has been missing in most Arsenal games: the ability to carry the ball over distances, as well as a secondary creative outlet.

The absence of carrying the ball over distances is in part tactical. Unai Emey is stricter in his on the ball instructions than Arsenal players would’ve experienced under Mr. Wenger and thus, the players who Arsenal used in the past to transition the ball into different phases have different roles now. The full backs get higher up the pitch; Aaron Ramsey is told to start in a high position and make runs, and Mesut Özil isn’t allowed as much freedom to drop deep. Add that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang isn’t a dribbler, and Arsenal’s attack all of a sudden becomes far more static.

This is one of two factors that has significant affected Mesut Özil’s effectiveness. In his position on the right of Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1, Özil is cut off from Granit Xhaka, with Xhaka on the left of the two central midfielders. Yet Özil is also cut off from another player who used to be significant in getting him the ball from a deeper position: Aaron Ramsey, who in a number 10 role, is unable to do that. And with Xhaka and Torreira in a deeper position, there is less movement between the lines, as I highlighted last week. One option to relieve that, short of not playing two defensive midfielders in every single game, is to play either Iwobi or Henrikh Mkhitaryan, wide players who come inside and link play, especially between the midfield and attacking units. Without those players, Arsenal’s attacking play has felt stunted, dependent on winning the ball higher up and playing from there, making Arsenal susceptible to being pressed, as Everton and Watford highlighted over the last two weeks.

It also provides support to the fullbacks. Arsenal’s first goal came after Iwobi made an inside to outside run on the right hand side, allowing Bellerin to play the ball to him. While Iwobi is generally better on the left hand side than the right, the comfort in a wider position gave Arsenal a second avenue of attack, one that was missing as Özil in the first half, and then Aubameyang in the second as the two switched positions, looked to come inside.

Iwobi, of course, replaced Ramsey, and that seems a popular change. Indeed, with Ramsey likely leaving at the end of the year, relying on him to be an important part of the lineup seems like poor planning from Emery, who really should be looking to integrate players for the future in what is a very transitional year. One of those players is Iwobi, but that still won’t go all the way to fixing Arsenal’s need for balance. Iwobi prefers the left hand side to the right, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is not a right-sided player. There’s an argument to be made that Aubameyang isn’t a left-sided player either, with the Gabonese having the worst accruing the lowest amount of expected goals per 90 of his career, and that Emery should really choose between one of Aubameyang or Lacazette. That, though, is a decision that Emery will have to come too, and should not bear on what would be a justified and meritocratic inclusion of Iwobi, a player who can help Arsenal become more balanced and get more influence from Mesut Özil.