When Everton paid Arsenal an initial £28 million rising to £40 million for Alex Iwobi in the summer of 2019, lots of eyebrows were raised, the general perception being that they overpaid for the Nigerian, and perhaps, rightly so.
Iwobi, at the time, was a 23-year old squad player for Arsenal, who’d shown flashes of talent but lacked real consistency or end product. A measly 11 goals and 17 assists in 100 Premier League games in over four seasons for the Gunners proved that.
Those are not the kind of stats that come to mind when you think of a £28 million attacker, but Everton clearly didn’t mind, they splurged and believed in his potential to grow into something more at Goodison Park, a belief that was left unrealised in Iwobi’s debut season.
He returned just the solitary goal in 25 Premier League appearances for the Toffees last season, despite playing in different positions – left wing, attacking midfield and right wing – as the club sought the perfect tactical fit to get the player firing.
After that underwhelming first season, it appeared Iwobi was destined for the exit door at Goodison Park, especially with the impressive business carried out by Carlo Ancelotti last summer, including the capture of marquee signing, James Rodriguez from Real Madrid.
He wasn’t included in the squad for the opening day win away at Tottenham albeit on account of injury, and was a substitute in six of the next seven games, starting only once in a 4-2 win against Brighton in which he notched an assist.
An opportunity presented itself when Seamus Coleman got injured on international duty, leaving Everton without a fit senior right full back, a situation Carlo Ancelotti handled with a change in tactical approach.
Everton switched to a 3-4-3 formation with Iwobi occupying the right wing back role and excelling in the 3-2 win away at Fulham, breaking forward at will and giving the Toffees an additional attacking threat in a way that a rapidly declining Seamus Coleman finds increasingly difficult to muster.
With Iwobi in Everton’s current set up, there’s a flexibility to how the Toffees play with their formation evolving from 3-4-3 to a 4-4-2 as the game progresses, especially on the break with Richarlison tucking in alongside Dominic Calvert-Lewin from the left wing and giving them more options in the box for when the crosses come in.
Ancelotti has tried playing natural center back, Ben Godfrey in the right full back position to allow Iwobi a more attacking role as a right midfielder but it doesn’t work quite as well as playing the Nigerian as a right wing back.
Perhaps the former PSG boss borrowed a leaf from fellow Italian manager, Antonio Conte, who had previously also transformed a struggling Nigerian winger into a top right wing back.
Conte did it with Victor Moses at Chelsea, he needed a right wing back and with the transfer window already shut, had no choice than to look inward, and what he found was a player who was not good enough to start as a winger for Chelsea, but somehow thrived in the false 2 position, helping Chelsea win the league in the 2016/17 season.
Iwobi seems to be going through that exact same path and probably even better individually than Moses. He’s primarily a number 10 so he passes better than Moses, is more skillful and looks like he can only get better.
Iwobi showed he could offer value in a way no one else saw coming, and he now seems to have the full trust of his manager, having played in 8 of Everton’s last 9 games, all as a starter and lasting the entire duration of the game in five of those.
He has also been able to add consistency to his game, something that had been missing his entire career. Perhaps not in terms of stats as those are still poor, but in terms of his performances.
Every time Iwobi has filed out for Everton in his new found role this season, one knows what to expect: a solid performance with buccaneering runs, the occasional cross and tackle and an extra attacking presence when the team needs it.
Although his end product still needs a massive boost – he should have more than 1 goal and 2 assists this season – he’s also not been helped by the finishing ability of his teammates.
His other stats do look good though, 310 completed passes out of his attempted 377 means he has an 82% pass completion rate which is quite impressive.
He’s also been able to hold his own on the defensive end and contributes to a lot of Everton’s victories, completing 17 successful tackles out of 26 attempts, a success rate of 65%. Not bad for a someone who’s not a natural defender.
In summary, Alex Iwobi has gone from fringe to key player for Everton in the space of a few months because of his ability to grab his chance and offer value where the coach needs it and the new found consistency and stability he brings allows Ancelotti to trust him which in turn shows in his performances.