LAST week, Arsenal said goodbye to Alex Iwobi after 16 years with the club. The Nigerian played over 2,500 minutes for the Gunners across all competitions last season, emphasising his importance to Unai Emery’s team, not least because he was one of the few players in the squad capable of carrying the ball long distances and taking defenders on.
He came into the first team in the spring of 2016 because Cazorla, Wilshere and Rosicky were all suffering with injuries they never truly recovered from. In the summer of 2017, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain left, followed the subsequent January by the departures of Theo Walcott and Alexis Sanchez. Arsenal badly needed Iwobi’s qualities as they failed to replace a succession of dribblers and runners.
This summer, however, Arsenal brought in Nicolas Pepe and Reiss Nelson returned from a loan spell at Hoffenheim. There are almost certainly players the club would have preferred to sell ahead of Iwobi, but in lieu of suitors willing to take on Mesut Ozil or Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s salaries, £35million for an academy player who has been a touch inconsistent represented good business. Having spent around £70million on Nicolas Pepe, the books needed balancing.
But was it the right decision? Even with the addition of Pepe, Arsenal are still not blessed with many dribblers. Iwobi played his best football in an Arsenal shirt at the outset of the 2016-17 season on the left side of a front three also featuring Theo Walcott and Alexis Sanchez. Iwobi’s totals of three goals and six assists in the Premier League last season were broadly typical across his three full seasons in the first team.
End product was never his forte, Iwobi’s strength is moving the ball from the middle third to the final third. On the left of a front three alongside Alexis and Walcott, this was ideal. Here he behaved like a sort of creative water carrier, fetching the ball and putting it into areas of opportunity for Theo and Alexis and Özil playing just off them.
When the onus is on Alex to provide the finishing flourish, the results are distinctly underwhelming. There is an argument that the Nigerian would have provided the perfect counter-balance for a front three featuring either Lacazette or Aubameyang through the middle and Pepe or Nelson on the right. Finally, Iwobi was about to be surrounded by some end-product heavy forwards, allowing him to accentuate his skill set.
At Everton, he could be about to walk into a similar setup, providing the ammunition for Moise Kean and Richarlison. Arsenal are also looking a little light on genuine left sided options for the attack too. Nelson and Mkhitaryan prefer to play on the right, Özil far prefers playing in the centre and Iwobi’s absence increases the likelihood of Unai Emery playing his most lethal striker, Pierre Emerick Aubameyang, on the left wing.
— Arsenal (@Arsenal) August 9, 2019
Iwobi’s absence does leave a hole in the squad. However, the arrival of Dani Ceballos potentially replaces some of his dribbling and ball carrying qualities, albeit from a different area of the pitch. In Reiss Nelson, Bakayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli, Arsenal have lots of talent coming through in the wide positions and Iwobi’s departure gives the Gunners a chance to nurture their potential.
Ultimately, Iwobi was never likely to hit the heights of Aubameyang, Lacazette or Pepe, which means he was destined to be a high-level squad player and little more. Through that lens, £35million is a decent price and Arsenal absolutely must re-learn the skill of selling at the right time. Too often, players have been able to leave for well below market value because Arsenal had an affinity with them and hoped they would achieve their potential.
Iwobi is great at moving the ball from the middle third to the final third, but not so great at finishing moves off. That is very valuable when you've players in the final third who need that service and less valuable when the onus is on Iwobi to provide the final part himself.
— Tim Stillman (@Stillberto) August 9, 2019
An inability to horse trade is one of the predominant reasons their transfer budget for the summer was so paltry. Even without Champions League qualification, the kitty would have been significantly increased had players like Sanchez, Ramsey, Welbeck and Wilshere been sold at more opportune moments. As sad as it is to see an academy graduate leave, Arsenal fans are going to have to learn to let go.
Ideally, I think Arsenal would have liked to hold onto Iwobi for at least another season. There wasn’t a huge rush to make a final judgement on the player, who was under a strong contract. Failure to sell less marketable players means that, on this occasion, needs must. He will be missed, and the club will hope at least one of their surfeit of young wide forwards can fill the gap he leaves behind, especially on the left hand side of the attack.