“Almost unstoppable”. That is how Alex Iwobi describes the confidence he is currently playing with.
Often, it is considered crude to speak about oneself in such high regard. Here, though, the self-proclamation is entirely justified. Iwobi has been directly involved in six Premier League goals this season, his best return for Everton – and it is only October.
He has had a hand in 55 per cent of his side’s, somewhat underwhelming, total of 11 goals. The tally is also his most since scoring three and assisting six in his brief heyday at Arsenal in 2018-19.
Given Iwobi’s immense influence, it is difficult to imagine where Everton would be without him this season. A tale of redemption. Caught sauntering through Crystal Palace’s defence last weekend, the previously cast aside forward looks to be reborn as a box-to-box midfielder. His 21 chances created from open play this season can only be bettered by Mohamed Salah, Kevin De Bruyne, Bruno Fernandes and Harry Kane.
He is playing a starring role for Everton and thriving off the interest. Involved all over the park, the freedom he has been afforded by manager Frank Lampard has redefined what Iwobi, once deemed surplus to requirements at Arsenal, is capable of.
“I’m able to express myself,” he told evertonfc.com following his side’s 3-0 triumph over Patrick Vieira’s Palace side – someone else who knows a thing or two about midfield proficiency.
“We were second best,” Vieira himself conceded.
The journey from scoring his first senior goal for Arsenal against Everton at Goodison Park as a teenager, to emerging as a fully-fledged Toffees fan favourite has been profound. It certainly did not happen overnight. But his latest display perfectly encapsulates the rise.
Consider Everton’s opener, scored by Dominic Calvert-Lewin. Iwobi is the most advanced of any player in a blue shirt as his side win a high turnover. They hunt in a pack, key to any successful press, before pinching the ball in a presentable area wide right.
Iwobi’s quick feet then establish the foothold from which to mount a calculated entry. He sidesteps Tyrick Mitchell, punches the ball into Calvert-Lewin’s path and allows his striker to do the rest.
Everton’s second goal, which began with audible angst as the Goodison faithful aired their concern about overplaying at the back, was also only possible because of Iwobi’s careful positioning. He commissioned the entire move with devastating accuracy.
Everton pierced through Palace’s half-hearted press before Iwobi dropped deep to collect a pass from Seamus Coleman on the half-turn. His first thought was forwards, playing a neat one-two with Calvert-Lewin before stroking an incisive pass into Demarai Gray on the move – back to front in a flash.
The kind of free-flowing football Lampard has always wanted to deliver, surprisingly now with Iwobi as the lynchpin.
It is rarely a headline-grabbing part, but the Arsenal academy product appears happy to play it, while retaining responsibility for the necessary groundwork associated with any central midfielder worth his salt.
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If anyone on Merseyside needed convincing further of Iwobi’s ability to shape games, he saved his best trick for last at the weekend. Palace legs had tired, interest had waned, but the interchange was nevertheless magic. A real crowd-pleaser.
A player down on their luck would not even attempt the ingenious back-heeled flick that teed up Dwight McNeil five minutes from time – much less execute it. The craft and disguise on the touch speaks volumes about Iwobi’s personal growth. Maybe the penny has finally dropped.
Flashes of brilliance have threatened to ignite Iwobi’s previously plateauing career following a £35m move from north London, but seldom has the 26-year-old delivered such a complete midfield performance. There was a maturity about the way he commanded the ball off team-mates, as if untouchable.
Indeed, his final act as an Arsenal player was testament to the quality he possesses. Arriving on the scene as a late substitute in the Europa League final in 2019, Iwobi rifled a parting gift into the top corner of the net, as the Gunners lost their sixth major European final to Chelsea.
The goal gave the game, and his Arsenal tenancy, a flicker of hope but was immediately upstaged by Eden Hazard’s final Chelsea hurrah – a dramatic two-goal swansong. The Iwobi strike paled into insignificance.
It did serve, however, to alert or possibly remind suitors of Iwobi’s potential – once considered a rising star in north London. “I didn’t expect that level of efficiency,” Arsene Wenger said when the academy graduate burst onto the first-team scene in 2016.
It is that productivity and adeptness that is serving him so well now. Perhaps his athleticism always lent itself to an all-action midfielder, but that switch was only ever meant to be temporary, having provided cover in the wake of Everton’s injury crisis towards the end of last season.
Lampard is moulding a player not too dissimilar from himself, albeit with a considerable distance to go. It is certainly no coincidence that Iwobi’s renaissance over the past six months has been under the leadership and tutorial of one of the Premier League’s greatest-ever central midfielders.
The upturn has surely got to be considered one of Lampard’s savviest success stories. “‘Wow, this boy can run,” was the former Chelsea midfielder’s initial assessment, but few people beyond Lampard himself envisioned the potential a shift in position would unlock.
“While it’s my job to coach him through it and I do have personal moments with him, for a player of Alex’s intelligence and quality, it’s down to him,” the Everton boss revealed to Sky Sports recently.
Alex came and played as a winger when I first got here, then in midfield as a necessity, you’re thinking what has he got? Loads of energy and can handle the ball, let’s see if he can go in midfield..”
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Outwitting opponents on a consistent basis has previously held Iwobi back, but that too is improving. He is now affecting games at both ends of the pitch. He has won possession more times (86) and run further (128km) than any Everton player this season, all while far outperforming his expected assists column. In return, he is currently on the longest run of successive league starts of his career (24).
A comeback story of proportions, Iwobi has never looked back since scoring a 99th-minute winner against Newcastle back in March to considerably boost his side’s survival prospects. The catalyst of his and Everton’s rallying.
“The manager gives me so much belief,” he said recently. Only now is that beginning to translate on the pitch.
It is not so easy being the conductor of a somewhat insufficiently oiled machine. But if there is to be a sustained Everton revival over the course of what is likely to be another topsy-turvy campaign, you are likely to find Iwobi right at the heart of it.
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