Everton’s dreadful start to the season under Marco Silva created a huge impact, from the pitch to those who sit on the board. Moshiri’s man had failed and dreadful performances, week in, week out, led to major criticism and finger pointing towards certain players. Some a lot more than others.
Though the criticism of Iwobi was not as large as others in the squad, Alex Iwobi was one of the players whose performances had aggravated a percentage of the Goodison faithful. After his deadline day arrival from Arsenal for £28m (rising to £35m with bonuses), the signing of Alex Iwobi raised eyebrows amongst the Everton fan base – due to it being completely unexpected. Although Everton had been in hot pursuit of Wilfried Zaha earlier in the transfer window, making a big money signing so late was rather ‘un-Marcel Brands’ like.
A huge amount of the thirteen starts Iwobi has made this season were under the Portuguese manager, a hamstring injury keeping him out throughout the winter months. Iwobi has featured twice under Ancelotti, an hour each at both Watford and Arsenal. Despite the lack of game time, criticism still has aimed at his way. Is the disapproval warranted? Or has Iwobi not had the opportunity in the team that he deserves?
Style of Play
Whether its playing behind the striker, on the left, or on the odd occasion, the right – there are certain traits that Iwobi executes when playing in any of these positions. A primary example of this is his desire to get the ball into the penalty area. This season alone, Iwobi ranks second in the Everton squad for number of passes into this zone of the field – with 27, only behind Lucas Digne (32), despite having only played 1,167 minutes. With that being said, Alex Iwobi is the most frequent passer into the penalty area per 90 (out of all players having played over 1000 minutes) – averaging a pass into the box every 43 minutes. Another common trait of Iwobi, is his desire to split open the opposition defence if a passing lane is open and the striker makes a run.
Iwobi managed to split open, statistically, the league’s best defence; twice in the same match, creating good quality chances at goal for both Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Moise Kean. The clip also reflects his desire to get the ball into the penalty area, whether from a decent pass or beating the defender one-vs-one, which is something that Everton have lacked since the departure of Ross Barkley.
In Iwobi, it looks that Marcel Brands has finally found a replacement in this domain, after the failure of Steve Walsh, signing three attacking midfielders who could not beat anyone one-vs-one. It is also necessary to highlight that Iwobi was the ideal signing, for the style of play that Marco Silva wanted to play. A philosophy of Silva’s was to exploit the flanks and focus the play down the wings to utilise Lucas Digne and Djibril Sidibe/Seamus Coleman’s crossing ability.
Again, another trait of Iwobi’s is to get the ball out to the wings to create a chance – which also leads to him getting the “assist of the assist” in a lot of situations, something which a lot of fans fail to acknowledge. A prime example of this, is Richarlison’s goal against Leicester, with the assist coming from Djibril Sidibe – however, the move started with Iwobi carrying the ball, from the centre of the field and then playing a perfectly weighted pass out to Sidibe, who then crosses it into Richarlison who slots away the header to Schmeichel’s right.
Iwobi still putting in decent attacking numbers has gone unrecognized amongst supporters. He currently sits 4th in the Everton squad with combined xG + xA per 90 minutes (out of players who have played over 1000 minutes) with 0.31, only behind that of Dominic Calvert-Lewin (0.63), Richarlison (0.48) and Theo Walcott (0.34).
He also ranks 4th in the Everton squad, for shot creating actions per 90 (2.78) – a lot of which result from his passes into the penalty area. The following two graphs, show where Iwobi ranks in the Everton squad, and then that in Europe’s top 5 leagues for deep completions per 90 compared with xA per 90 – further reflecting his importance to the Everton team and how underrated he actually is.
Despite the previously stated positives, there are still many parts to his game that Iwobi needs to improve. An example of this, is his finishing ability – data from fbref show that Iwobi -1.1 G-xG (goals-expected goal) – his shot against West Ham reflects this and shows he needs to improve his composure and finishing ability in a 1v1 situation.
Another aspect of his game that he needs to improve is his defending ability. If Ancelotti continues to play his 4-4-2 formation, then Iwobi would struggle to play on the left due to his defensive incapability’s – however, as he is only young and players are still learning the new system under Ancelotti, there is plenty of time to improve this side to his game.
This also corresponds with Iwobi needing to improve his game management – for example when to pressure a player. This season, he has applied 306 pressures, with only 77 being successful – leaving him with a successful pressure rate of only 25.2% – however under Ancelotti, Everton pressure the opponents a lot less than they did under previous management of Marco Silva. If Iwobi improves on the previously stated factors, then it will vastly improve his game and also – further improve – his versatility.
Where he Fits under Ancelotti
The arrival of Carlo Ancelotti saw Everton continue the 4-4-2 system that Duncan Ferguson temporarily implemented. The 4-4-2 formation is without a number 10 or a left winger who can take up positions further forward. To play on the left, in a 4-4-2, positioning in the defensive phase is especially important. As previously stated, Iwobi would need to improve his defensive side to his game to establish a starting place under Ancelotti – there is no doubt over his ability going forward. Under Ancelotti, Everton attack in a sort of 3-1-4-2 formation – where one of the double pivot drops deeper and the wingers come inside to allow the full-backs to overlap – this is where Iwobi thrives – playing as a sort of “false ten” allows Iwobi to execute his desired style of play as highlighted earlier in the article.
However, Ancelotti has previously played a 4-3-1-2 formation at AC Milan and a diamond midfield at Chelsea – should he implement the same system at Everton, then Iwobi can easily slot in at the number 10 slot, behind the strikers, which is where he plays best.
Ancelotti witnessed great success with his 4-3-1-2 at AC Milan guiding them to a Champions League (I’m not saying changing this will mean we are European Cup winners, we are missing a Seedorf and a Pirlo in the midfield.) The diamond midfield he played at Chelsea, showed incredible strength at the start of the 2009/10 season, even with the lack of width it provides. So, if next season, Ancelotti turns back to either his diamond midfield or his 4-3-1-2, or even the Christmas Tree, then Iwobi could comfortably slot in behind the two strikers – his shares common traits with the previous number 10’s that Ancelotti has worked with.
Iwobi versus Bernard
It is fair to say that Iwobi faces a strong opponent in his fight for the left-mid slot in Bernard. Both individuals have different styles of play which offers a lot to the team. Iwobi likes to drift inside and play the ball out towards the opposite flank, where Bernard is more of your ‘classic winger’, who hugs the sideline and takes the ball on the outside of defenders.
When comparing both statistically, Iwobi has a combined xG + xA (per 90 minutes) of 0.31 compared to that of Bernard, 0.22. However, in terms of shot creating actions per 90, Bernard is just ahead of Iwobi, with 3.53 compared to 2.78. The same trend is reflected in goal creating actions per 90, with Bernard topping Iwobi with a GCA of 0.44 to 0.15. However, as the following graphs show, Iwobi averages (per 90) a higher xA, more passes into the penalty area and a higher percentage of pass completion. Iwobi also completes more crosses, with a higher cross completion rate, whilst most importantly – only gets dispossessed onceper 90 minutes, compared to that of Bernard, 1.67. Whilst Bernard may look better on the eye due to his flair and skills, he doesn’t offer as much output as Alex Iwobi does – however, it is still important to note there is still no doubt in Bernard’s ability or skill and what he offers to the team.
To conclude, the backlash that Alex Iwobi receieves is very unwarranted. Many people have claimed we overpaid for him, which I believe isn’t the case – to sign an established Premier League player, who posted the stats he did, and has the potential he has at £28m is not overpaying. Under Ancelotti’s system, Iwobi should be the starting out on the left and should also start if a formation change is witnessed like previously stated.
He is still only 24 years old – he has plenty of time to establish his place in the team and to unlock his potential – however this can only be achieved with confidence and support from the fanbase – not jumping on his back after one performance. Iwobi offers a lot more than people realise, and why looking deeper than goals and assists is very important.