Everton host Arsenal at Goodison Park and Alex Iwobi will probably still harbour sad memories over events from almost a year ago when both sides met on December 21 in the corresponding fixture.
Facing off with his old side at his new stomping ground, the Nigeria attacking midfielder coming back to haunt his ex-teammates made for one of the interesting sub-plots on Merseyside before kick-off.
With Carlo Ancelotti and Mikel Arteta confirmed as the clubs’ coaches after disastrous endings to previous regimes under Marco Silva and Unai Emery in the hours leading to the encounter, the fixture was billed as one for the selected personnel to try to prove their worth in front of the new men at the helm.
However, for Iwobi, this chance was short-lived; an early hamstring injury barely 10 minutes in the game at Goodison saw the West African replaced; thus failing to 1) impress the new boss and 2) fail to show his old side what they were missing.
The graduate of the Gunners academy didn’t play again until early February and was playing catch-up for the rest of the season trying to cement a first-team role.
The reverse fixture at the Emirates Stadium didn’t go according to plan either. Despite posting quite noteworthy underlying stats in North London, the ex-Arsenal player was replaced by Bernard on the hour, as the Toffees went on to undeservedly lose 3-2.
2019/20 was turbulent for Iwobi in every sense of the word, and his paucity of direct goal contributions — one goal, no assist — meant it was easy to claim Everton hadn’t been beneficiaries of the former prodigy’s acquisition.
In a sense, the same could have been said for Arsenal; whose glaring lack of creativity and absence of an effective link-up player indicated they hadn’t benefited from the sale of the product of their developmental squad.
While the issues plaguing the three-time Premier League winners are still prevalent, the Merseyside club have grown from strength to strength, overcome a rough patch and look to be on the up again going into the festive period.
Indeed, Iwobi has played an important role for Ancelotti’s men in recent weeks; initially moonlighting as a wing-back, playing an hour at right-back before deputising for injured James Rodriguez in wins over Chelsea last weekend and Leicester on Wednesday.
The 24-year-old was the home side’s most-effective ball carrier against Frank Lampard’s side and only Richarlison (five) completed more dribbles than the Nigerian (four) in the 1-0 success.
Midweek at the King Power Stadium was even better. Unsurprisingly, the Super Eagle carried the ball toward the opponent’s goal productively than any teammate on the night, completed all three of his attempted dribbles and was involved in four shot-creating actions, higher than all his colleagues.
Furthermore, he created the highest volume of chances (three) against the Foxes, along with Gylfi Sigurdsson and played more accurate passes into the penalty area than any member of the Everton side.
An impressed Ancelotti lauded that Iwobi performance as the best the Nigeria superstar had shown since he took charge. When you consider the experienced Italian has been in the hot seat since December last year, the effusive praise was striking.
“It’s his [Iwobi’s] best moment since I arrived [at Everton],” Ancelotti told the Everton website. “He is showing confidence, is really good in one-versus-one situations and he is working hard. The key is to work hard – the team is working hard.
“I said to the players that we have to be satisfied but we have to work and we have to improve.”
Even though Iwobi is yet to score this season, his assist for Richarlison’s strike means he’s now surpassed last season’s tally.
Two goal contributions may seem undistinguished at first sight but the underlying numbers so far show a player who’s integral to the Toffees.
Among teammates with significant minutes, only James beats the West African for shot-creating actions per 90, while he sits a respectable fifth for goal-creating actions per 90. Iwobi also ranks fifth for progressive passes per game and third for accurate crosses and pin-point passes into the area p/g.
Furthermore, only Rodriguez and Lucas Digne rank higher than the former Arsenal man for Expected Assists per match while he’s second to Richarlison for completed dribbles per 90.
After giving a good account of himself at wing-back, Iwobi has proven his undoubted quality having been reinstated in the attacking third with the side’s creative hub out with a slight injury.
Ancelotti has acknowledged the Nigerian’s soaring confidence in recent weeks and it puts him in the right state of mind to finally be third-time lucky against the side that let him go over a year ago.