The attacking midfielder was omitted from Everton’s squad at Tottenham Hotspur, casting doubts over his place in Carlo Ancelotti’s plans
After last season’s frustrating year for Alex Iwobi at Everton, Sunday’s ignominious exclusion in the Toffees’ first game of the 2020/21 season at Tottenham Hotspur was fairly damning.
The former Arsenal playmaker didn’t feature in the Merseyside giants’ impressive 1-0 defeat of the North London side which was a statement victory in every sense of the word. Before Sunday, Everton had tried 40 times to get the better of the so-called top six sides in the Premier League on the road. Each time, they failed.
On the opening weekend of an exciting season, however, the blue half of Merseyside finally, at the 41st attempt, beat one of the division’s top teams away from home. The enthusiasm that had been building after the signings of James Rodriguez, Allan and Abdoulaye Doucoure from Real Madrid, Napoli and Watford respectively has since grown.
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In fairness, it’s hard to begrudge Everton, who have always nurtured the ambition to supplant the league’s top six or maybe even top four. Their appointment of Carlo Ancelotti signalled that ambition in more ways than one. The arrival of James from probably the biggest club in the world strengthens their long-lasting sense of purpose to challenge the elite, established teams.
So, where does Iwobi fit into the new, seemingly revamped Everton? Does he even fit?
— Goal Africa (@GoalAfrica) September 12, 2020
The story of last season
It was, without a doubt, a mixed 2019/20 campaign for Iwobi after his big-money move to Goodison Park from Arsenal. Thrown into the malaise that was Marco Silva’s final months in charge, the Nigeria star wasn’t put in an environment to play at his best.
Still, he was probably one of the team’s better players, which, in fairness, isn’t saying much as Everton were a shambles in the opening months of the season, as many of the side’s go-to individuals underwhelmed.
The ex-Gunner was one of the finer performers in Silva’s ill-fated 5-2 thrashing in the Merseyside derby in early December. Less than 48 hours later, the Portuguese trainer was jettisoned and Duncan Ferguson stepped in temporarily for a supposedly daunting run of games vs Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal.
However, the Toffees came out of those games unbeaten with five points from nine. The impressive, deserved 3-1 success over the West London side energised a Goodison crowd that were exasperated with dreary showings.
Iwobi played 180 minutes in the first pair of games under Ferguson but, against his former side hours after Ancelotti had been confirmed as new boss, the playmaker’s maiden year significantly took a turn for the worse.
Minutes into what ended up being a boring goalless game, the Nigeria international pulled up with a suspected hamstring injury and missed six league fixtures. That saw him lose his chance to impress the three-time Champions League-winning manager and he played catch-up for the rest of the season.
The forced hiatus brought about by the coronavirus pandemic was good for the West African who then featured in seven of the side’s final nine matches, starting six times.
In fairness, he did very little and finished the campaign disappointingly with a goal and no assist after 25 games (19 starts). While the ex-Arsenal academy graduate has never been one, and may never be, to post really impressive glossy statistics, the paucity in 19/20 was bitterly disappointing.
However, some of Iwobi’s underlying stats were encouraging: he ranked third for in-play passes leading to shots and was sixth for shot-creating actions per 90.
He was sixth for volume of progressive passes played, the only wideman or attacking midfielder in that top bracket, and played the second-highest passes into the penalty area. The Nigerian ranked fourth for total key passes played, too, indicating some promise going into his second season.
Any transfer rumours?
The aforementioned signings by Ancelotti have thrown the 24-year-old’s future into uncertainty and past Nigeria left-back Ifeanyi Udeze has urged his compatriot to depart Finch Farm.
Nothing concrete has emerged yet, so the attacking midfielder should feature on Merseyside this term provided Everton don’t force the issue.
One hope for 2020/21
Wishing an improvement in shiny stats for Iwobi may never be a realistic target as he just isn’t that sort of player. What he can do is show his quality with other technical players like Rodriguez around him.
With James now at the club, the burden of creativity doesn’t fall on the Super Eagle who could, theoretically, thrive playing with the Colombia maestro.
Given Ancelotti’s choice to leave him out completely against Spurs and, strikingly in their final game of last season against Bournemouth, fans of the Nigerian will want a bit of light at the tunnel for the seemingly out-of-favour playmaker.
One fear for 2020/21
What if the attacking midfielder is shunted and truly cast aside by Everton barely a year after they paid a sizeable transfer fee to secure his services from Arsenal?
This will leave Iwobi in a position where, at 24, he’s failed to hold down a place at the Gunners and also at a mid-table, but ambitious, club as well.
Goal’s prediction for the season
In fairness, there’s still an inclination to not overreact concerning Iwobi despite signings. For one, James, Allan and Doucoure are not direct replacements for the Nigeria creator.
However, Everton’s change of formation to accommodate the South American maverick has been detrimental to the former Gunner, as Richarlison may be deployed on the left flank, not up front, for the season.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s form post-lockdown—he fired blanks after the restart—seemed to suggest the Brazilian might start the new season as a makeshift forward. If gameweek one’s line-up is Ancelotti’s preferred line-up, it doesn’t bode well for Iwobi, who’s largely been played as a wide playmaker on the left.
However, he has experience of playing on the right, previously at Arsenal and Everton, so it won’t be alien to him to feature there.
In what is set to be a long season, Iwobi will get games, so he needn’t fret. On the other hand, whether that proves to be substantial enough or to his development as a player remains to be seen.