A Big Season for Big 17

Alex Iwobi – an Arsenal Man

By Sam Limbert

One of the most intriguing things about the new season is how it is difficult to know what Unai Emery is going to do with his team selection and his tactics. Under Arsene Wenger, everything became very predictable. The 70th minute substitution, which players would get selected and the style of play became quite easy to guess by the end of this tenure at the club.

That isn’t to say that what Wenger was doing was wrong, but because of how long we’d all watched the team under his management, what he was going to do was clear and familiar.

Alex Iwobi Celebrates his goal against Chelsea
Alex Iwobi – Is he the new Arsenal Man?

This isn’t the case in the early part of this season as we all try and second guess what Unai Emery is thinking. From his team selections and substitutions in the first few games, it seems like reputations are being ignored and he’s picking players based on what he wants in certain games. That was evident at Chelsea on Saturday with one of the most surprising names on the team sheet being Alex Iwobi.

After bursting into the first team in 2016, Iwobi didn’t continue his rapid development and drew criticism last season. While Arsene Wenger was great for his career in that he was promoted to the first team at a young age, Iwobi last season looked like a player that would benefit from the voice of a different coach. As a result, he is the player in the squad I’m most interested to see how his game develops under Unai Emery.

In a squad that is lacking in wide players, there is an opportunity for Iwobi to really establish himself in the team and gain confidence from being an important member of the squad. When he is at his best, everything looks natural and like he isn’t having to overthink his game. Much like Theo Walcott, Iwobi’s decision making isn’t great when he has plenty of time to think about what to do. More detailed tactical coaching from Unai Emery could be just what he needs to make that decision making second nature.

I was delighted to see him score at Stamford Bridge because that will give him confidence and was an important contribution from him in a big game. Iwobi’s end product has been a major area of his game with room for improvement as he can panic in front of goal, but he timed his movement into the box perfectly against Chelsea and finished clinically.

Physically he can also become an imposing figure in the team. He’s quick, strong and has the stamina to do his defensive work when playing on the flank. While Chelsea were regularly attacking Arsenal’s right side on Saturday with Henrikh Mkhitaryan not offering much protection to Hector Bellerin, the Blues got much less joy on the other side as Iwobi worked back to help Nacho Monreal. With Danny Welbeck possessing the athleticism to work back but lacking the same technical quality and Mkhitaryan and Mesut Ozil not being genuine wide players, Iwobi offers balance to the team. He is someone who suits the pressing tactics but picking him doesn’t come at the expense of footballing ability when the team regains possession.

The other main I hope Alex Iwobi can progress this season is that he is also an Arsenal man. With Jack Wilshere gone and Carl Jenkinson realistically only going to get a game if there is an injury crisis after his latest setback, Iwobi can take on the mantle of being a fan in the first team and being an example of having a dream as a kid, coming through the academy and playing for your boyhood team.

For someone that has the nickname BIG 17 and has a strong social media game, he doesn’t always play on the pitch with the same amount of expression, especially when he has the talent to do so. The changes at the club over the summer have given Iwobi an opportunity to change that. He’s recently signed a new long-term contract and while that will partly be to protect any future value in the transfer market, it was a show of confidence in his ability and potential.

Not knowing what Unai Emery is going to do, Iwobi could easily end up out of the team against West Ham on Saturday if the head coach wants to get Aubameyang and Lacazette into the same team. But Iwobi was trusted by Emery in a big away game and he repaid that faith with a strong performance. If he continues to take his opportunities in the team, Iwobi can progress towards the player we hoped he’d be when he first broke through into the first team.


A stroll in Swansea moves Arsenal back into the top four

After a slightly stressful festive period and third round of the FA Cup, it was nice for Arsenal not to need a late goal from Olivier Giroud to bail them out again as they comprehensively beat Swansea on Saturday. The 4-0 win will have been an eye-opener for Paul Clement as he begins the task of trying to keep the Swans in the division, and if they continue to play like they did in the second half against the Gunners, that job is going to be nearly impossible.
Arsenal continued the slightly annoying recent trend of starting poorly in the first half as the hosts created a few decent openings, pressed high up the pitch and restricted space for the likes of Ozil and Alexis, but once the Gunners took the lead, they never looked like surrendering it. 
Olivier Giroud continued his excellent run of form by scoring the opener in the first half. The only surprise was that it wasn’t in the last ten minutes and wasn’t a scorpion kick. The Frenchman seemed to pick up a knock to his ankle early in the game and aggrevated it trying to get on the end of Aaron Ramsey’s low cross. He picked himself up and fired in from close range moments later as Alexis collected the ball from Ramsey, crossed for Ozil, and the German’s blocked header fell perfectly for Giroud to find the roof of the net with his right foot.
He immediately signalled to be substituted, but battled through to half-time and for 15 minutes into the second half. By that time, the game was almost wrapped up after the second Arsenal goal. Arsene Wenger’s team started the second half in much the same way they did at Preston in the previous game. There was more intensity about the play as they didn’t let the home side dictate the terms of the game. They pushed Swansea back, piled on the pressure and made them panic. Even though it was 1-0 at the break, the first half was slack from the Gunners, but they were much sharper in the second period. Similar things have happened now at Bournemouth, Preston and Swansea, and against better opposition, if Arsenal continue to start badly, they’ll be punished more. It’s something Arsene Wenger needs to address, but it was pleasing that even though the team were winning, they reacted to the quality of their performance rather than the scoreline. It would have been easy to think that it 1-0, not try and up the tempo and just look to slow the game now. Instead, Arsenal massively upped their game and swarmed all over the Swans in the second period.
This second-half improvement wasn’t driven primarily by the returning Mesut Ozil or Alexis Sanchez, but by Alex Iwobi. The Nigerian buzzed around dangerous areas and always offered himself to the midfield as a forward pass. His strength on the ball while maintaining close control really shone through in the second half, as did his mature decision making. He’s not just got the skills to play well with his feet, but increasingly his brain is thinking a couple of steps ahead of others, which is very impressive for a young player like him.
Iwobi’s goal-bound shot after a period of concerted Arsenal pressure doubled the lead after half-time as Jack Cork’s touch looped the ball over Lukasz Fabianski. Shortly afterwards, Iwobi drove into the Swansea box again and his low, drilled cross was put past his own goalkeeper by Kyle Naughton. The second one was definitely an own goal, but hopefully the dubious goals panel don’t credit Jack Cork with an own goal when Iwobi’s shot was likely to go into the bottom corner. The Arsenal attacker definitely deserved a goal for an industrious and eye-catching performance.
At 3-0, the game was done. Arsenal kept on attacking though with the forward players sensing a chance to boost the goal difference. When Arsenal have been in these situations this season, it’s been refreshing to see them continue to attack and not just kill the game off. With the league table being very tight around the top four, it could make a difference in May.
Iwobi was involved again as the Gunners bagged a fourth. His through ball set Oxlade-Chamberlain away down the left but his cut-back couldn’t quite find Aaron Ramsey. But the ball fell to the lurking Alexis Sanchez, who expertly swivelled to volley into the top corner to continue his excellent recent form. 
At 4-0 and with 12 minutes to go, Arsene Wenger made the understandable decision to give Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez a rest by bringing on Lucas Perez and Danny Welbeck. While we all absolutely love that Alexis hates being substituted, it was a bit disappointing to see him having a sulk on the bench afterwards. I don’t think it as much of an issue as some are making it out to be as Alexis just wants to play, but he does also have to respect the manager’s decision and take the bigger picture when the team were 4-0 up. Imagine the criticism Wenger would get had he left him on and a frustrated Swansea player injured the Chilean with a crude late tackle. It was absolutely the right decision from the boss to give him a rest.
There will be much tougher games for Arsenal in the coming weeks, but with Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool all dropping points this weekend, it was vital Arsenal got the three points. Alexis and Giroud may have scored and continued to be the headline-makers, but it was a youngster from the Arsenal academy that really drove the team on to an excellent second-half display.

Giroud's magnificence moves Arsenal into the top three

Firstly, an apology for a lack of blog after the West Brom win. I picked up a rather un-classy illness over Christmas so was unable to write anything after the game. Normal order has been restored though, and it comes with something extraordinary to write about. 
Through a combination of the opposition and the injuries to Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain, Olivier Giroud finally got his opportunity to start a Premier League this season on Boxing Day, and he took it with a superb header to seal the win late on against West Brom. It was a goal no other player in the squad is likely to have scored in the way Giroud fought off the centre-back and headed the ball beyond the goalkeeper. But better was to come at the end of the week. Giroud isn’t just about strength as a big centre-forward. He has some subtle and, at times, sublime touches as well.
In the 17th minute against Crystal Palace on New Year’s Day, Lucas Perez intercepted a cross-field pass, allowing Hector Bellerin to find Giroud with his back-to-goal and in his own half. The Frenchman flicked the ball into the path of Granit Xhaka, who then released the pace of Iwobi and Alexis on the counter-attack. Iwobi fed the Chilean, who had Giroud thundering into the penalty area to complete the counter-attack. Alexis’ cross was slightly behind the Frenchman, but it only led to a more spectacular goal.
How Giroud finished it is hard to explain and do justice to it. Call it a scorpion kick, call it whatever. It was just instinctive brilliance. Giroud used all of his athleticism to hook the ball with his heel from behind him, planting the ball over the goalkeeper and in off the underside of the bar, instantly improving it as a goal.
It was a truly breathtaking moment that made you wonder if it had actually happened. The big screen replays in the stadium confirmed that it was real, and as much as we celebrated going 1-0 up, the fans rose to just applaud the magnificence of the goal. It was one of those rare moments where you have an overriding sense of privilege that you’d been able to witness such a special moment. Forget the opposition, forget the position in the league table, forget what competition that match was in. As a pure footballing moment, that goal was truly wonderful.
The unsurprising debate surfaced over whether Giroud’s effort was better than the similar goal scored by Mkhitaryan for Manchester United on Boxing Day, and while the Armenian’s goal was superb, what made Giroud’a extra special was that it came at the end of a sweeping counter-attack that had earlier been blessed by Giroud’s initial back-heeled flick. It was a brilliant team goal that was finished by a moment of indiviual inspiration. 
There has been discussion about where the goal sits in the pantheon of great Arsenal goals. In the modern, social media era, it is easy to overhype goals that make great vines and go viral on Twitter, but this goal will stand the test of time as one of the best in the Premier League. Choosing a number one for Arsenal is nigh on impossible, but Giroud’s effort deserves to the be mentioned in the same breath as Bergkamp against Leicester and Newcastle, Henry against Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham, and Kanu against Chelsea.
Everything else in the game on Sunday was always going to be a slight disappointment after such a wonderous goal graced the game so early, but the 2-0 win was fully merited for Arsenal and contained plenty of positives. With Mesut Ozil unavailable through illness, Alex Iwobi shone playing in the number 10 role. He always plays with his head up and looks to play a forward pass, plus he can be a dangerous runner going forward to support the striker. It was a very mature performance from the youngster, and one he capped with a clever cushioned header over the goalkeeper to double the lead in the second half. 
Alexis was his usual energetic self, while the full-backs got forward well and, on the whole, dealt with the threat posed by Crystal Palace’s two wingers; Zaha and Townsend. Gabriel quietly had an excellent game alongside Koscielny, while Petr Cech produced a few excellent saves when called upon.
But the other real stand-out performance came from Granit Xhaka in central midfield. His range of passing is exceptional, and he displayed the full repertoire on Sunday. Almost like an NFL quarter-back, Xhaka was able to thread some beautiful passes through the channels, particularly for Alexis Sanchez. Arsene Wenger often says it takes half a season for newcomers to the Premier League to get up to speed, and the Swiss international looks like he has completed his bedding-in period and is controlling games superbly.
But for all the other good performances, the game will only be remembered for one thing, the majestic moment from Olivier Giroud. The stupid schedule means that Arsenal have a day off and go straight into a big away game with Bournemouth on Tuesday, and it does leave little time to revel in that goal. So before the serious stuff gets going again on Tuesday night, go back to watching it.