Two months into the Premier League season and the pressure is already mounting on Everton after an abysmal start to the campaign.
Marco Silva’s side have recorded a mere seven points through seven Premier League games and stand at 15th in the league table. From the team’s lack of an attacking identity to their struggles in defending set pieces, Silva is currently left with more questions than answers on just how to construct a balanced and formidable gameplan.
Even with their array of issues, there are a few players that have been bright spots in a time where there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel. Among them, new signee Alex Iwobi is showing glimpses of impactful play over his seven total games for the club. With his play on and off the ball, the Nigerian international is exemplifying just exactly what he can add to Everton’s attacking unit.
Role and responsibilities in Silva’s setup
Through his 469 total minutes for the club in all competitions, Iwobi has been tasked with a number of different responsibilities in Silva’s tactical setup. In his club debut, Iwobi operated out on the left flank in the team’s 4-4-2 formation as a left midfielder against Aston Villa. Over his next six games for the club, the 23-year-old alternated between playing as a winger and a central attacking midfielder in Silva’s prototypical 4-2-3-1.
For the most part, the majority of Iwobi’s minutes have come in the left winger role -- a position which is sure to be a staple of his Everton tenure.
A left winger in a 4-2-3-1 has a number of duties central to their role, include positioning. Since there is a high emphasis on spacing in this formation, every player must be keen to keep a positional balance to avoid overloads on one particular area on the pitch. For instance, both wingers on the pitch are free to move out of their designated area in situations such as if either were to drop deep and assist in the team’s transition to the final third. But once the transition is complete, the player needs to move back into his area of the pitch to keep the team’s structural setup and seek to create goal-scoring chances.
For Iwobi, he has shown a good understanding of the positional requirements that come with playing as a winger in SIlva’s 4-2-3-1. What is most impressive is how he is actively looking to involve himself in the build-up of play -- a vital component in transitional play in this formation. Iwobi regularly drops deep out of his area to position himself into open space and provide a passing option for the ball carrier when the team holds possession in the defensive or middle third.
For example, see here how Everton are seeking to build out from their own defensive third. The player in possession, Seamus Coleman, does not have many passing options available due to Bournemouth’s high press and marking. With multiple players in the area, Bournemouth are hoping to force a long ball and immediately seek to regain possession.
To counter the opponent’s setup, Iwobi dropped into an open area of space. He subsequently received a pass and switched play over to the opposite flank. A simple movement and pass from Iwobi successfully negated Bournemouth’s high press.
(Note: If you don't see the graphics below in your newsreader, please click through to the website)
And here, Iwobi notices Morgan Schneiderlin does not have a forward option to distribute the ball to. So, Iwobi drops back to provide a passing option for the midfielder. He proceeds to receive the ball and switches play over to Sidibe in the final third. Two actions from Iwobi resulted in an effortless transition from the middle to the final third.
Now Iwobi’s positioning in the final third is an aspect of his play that has showed promise but can also use a few minor improvements, which can also be said of several other attackers on the team.
Iwobi’s positioning on this side of the pitch is evidently dependent on his role. As a left winger, Iwobi drifts along the half-space and left flank while occasionally linking up with Lucas Digne. And as a central attacking midfielder, Iwobi tends to glide from the middle third to the final third through the center and also moves out wide to both flanks as well. Nonetheless, his goal in both roles is clear: exploit open space or hover in between the opponent’s midfield and defensive lines.
For the most part, Iwobi has shown effectiveness in unsettling the opponent’s setup with his positioning. But there have been several instances where he isolates himself from the team’s build-up in the final third because of his placement on the pitch. Silva surely wants both of his wingers to constantly navigate their way into open space rather than remain stagnant in a certain area of the pitch, especially when taking into account that many of the Blues’ opponents this season have operated under a low block system when out of possession.
For instance, see here how Iwobi is positioned out on the left flank with Digne at a short distance near him. The problem? Iwobi was playing right into Sheffield United’s tactic since he is isolated out to the left rather than lurking around the half-space ready to push play into the box. Since Sheffield United were employing a defensive low block, they much preferred Everton’s wingers to remain positioned on the flanks and not pose any threat near or around the penalty box.
This situation pictured below is slightly similar as Lincoln City are working into their deep low block setup in an effort to refrain any Everton player from exploiting large gaps of open space. But here, Iwobi should have positioned himself in between the lines rather than isolated out like an unnecessary third central midfielder. Neither of Everton’s midfielders here need any aid in passing out of a press or building out from the middle third, so Iwobi is not needed in this area and should be higher up the pitch.
Now, onto Iwobi’s attacking prowess with his on-ball play in Silva’s tactical setup.
There are several features to Iwobi’s attacking repertoire that make him a versatile talent, but the main one is his aggressiveness to push play deep into the final third. Last season for Arsenal in Premier League play, he marked a fair 3.72 passes to the final third per 90 and 5.73 passes to the box per 90 according to Wyscout. This season in all competitions for Everton, he has an adequate 4.32 passes to the final third per 90 (highest on the team among attackers) and 3.60 passes to the box per 90 according to Wyscout.
What makes Iwobi’s playstyle stand out amongst his teammates is that he does not constantly resort to sending in crosses into the box, which is an aspect of play that is core to Everton’s attacking gameplan. Everton currently rank 2nd in the Premier League this season behind Liverpool in crosses attempted per game at 22.9 according to SofaScore. But unlike Liverpool, crosses have seemingly become Everton’s main source in pushing play into the penalty box, which makes the team predictable to defend against. Their offensive struggles largely stem from their stubbornness to continually launch crosses to the box rather than methodically push play into the box.
Meanwhile, Iwobi has attempted a grand total of just four total crosses in his seven games for the club this season according to WhoScored.
So, how exactly does Iwobi make his presence known in the final third?
The 23-year-old much prefers to link with other attackers deep in the final third with direct short or long passes. This way, the player receiving the pass has a relatively higher chance at maintaining possession rather than with a crosses from the flanks. Many of his passes directed to the final third have come to Moise Kean or Richarlison; they each typically lurk around the penalty box when Everton hold possession.
Whether the team is distributing the ball around the penalty box or in the midst of a counter-attack, Iwobi always has his eyes set on pushing play into threatening areas.
This is illustrated here as Iwobi is able to recover the loose ball and as he controls possession, he sees Kean begin to make an off-ball run upfield. Thus, Iwobi delivered a perfectly place through ball to Kean in the box.
And here, Iwobi receives the ball in the middle third with a plethora of space around him since Wolverhampton are shifting to their 5-3-2 defense setup. Within seconds, he sends in a direct long pass up to Kean. Unfortunately, Kean decided to play the ball on the run rather than immediately attempting to recover the loose ball, which made it easy for the Wolverhampton defender to thwart the ball away from the area. Needless to say, this sequence typifies exactly what Silva wants to see out of Iwobi.
Regardless of where he is stationed on the pitch, Iwobi always seems to have his eye on players around the box or those approaching the area. Such as on this sequence, Iwobi anticipates an off-ball run from Gylfi Sigurdsson and responds by sending in a long ball. But once again, nothing came from Iwobi’s vision and aggressiveness as Sigurdsson was unable to bring the ball down or get off a shot.
Creativity on the ball is needed for arguably any winger orchestrating play in a 4-2-3-1. Iwobi might not be that elusive winger that can beat defenders on the dribble and create at will, but his precision on the ball gives him the ability to still frustrate defenses. In short, Iwobi is patient on the ball and waits for the right opportunity to pounce on creating goal-scoring chances.
In the play below, Iwobi picks up the ball in the middle third and by this point, he has already made up his mind to drive into the box with the open channel of space available. Once there, he patiently waits for Richarlison to position himself in the penalty box to receive the pass.
And on this play, Iwobi is able to haul in possession while keeping any eye on Sheffield United’s defensive line and the movement of Kean. Again, he waits for the perfect opportunity to slide in a goal-scoring opportunity for a teammate.
Overall, Iwobi’s play is certainly a welcome addition to Everton’s attack. He has two goals and an assist this season, but the two stats do not paint the entire picture on the impact he has had. As alluded to before, the 23-year-old is certainly instrumental in the team’s overall build-up; he holds a team-high 0.25 xGBuildup90 according to Understat.
Nonetheless, there is still room to learn and improve for the former Arsenal talent.
How can Silva get the best out of Iwobi?
Potential. Potential. Potential.
This word has been regularly associated with Iwobi’s professional career thus far. And for good reason.
Time after time during his stint with Arsenal, Iwobi had his fair share of exceptional performances, but his career with the Gunners never came to a full circle due to his inconsistencies. Even at 23, the word “potential” is still being used to describe his talent because many feel that he still has so much more to offer as both a winger and central attacking midfielder.
Now with Everton, Iwobi definitely hopes to turn the tide on his career and string together a complete season. But his success with the club will not all come down to him. Unequivocally, Silva will have just as much of an influence by the way he continues to utilize Iwobi.
To Iwobi’s credit, he has been immense in his short time with the club thus far in playing multiple positions, but there is still room for improvement.
For one, Silva should look to provide Iwobi with more on-ball responsibilities.
The Nigerian international has already shown what he can do when in possession in creating goal-scoring opportunities and actively seeking to get involved in the team’s build-up. More importantly, he is constantly moving when with the ball rather than merely recycling possession. Last season, he averaged 3.25 progressive runs per 90 according to Wyscout, which ranked 5th in the Premier League. And his dribbling skills are not too shabby with a 70% success rate in the Premier League this season according to WhoScored.
So, it is certainly logical to increase his workload and allow for his profound attacking prowess to truly flourish in the final third.
Silva can accomplish this in a number of ways, such as aligning his position more along the half-spaces and center areas of the pitch. In effect, this would pit Iwobi alongside central attacking midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson around the penalty box and allow for both to co-anchor the team’s build-up in the final third. Of course, the two have the ability to work together with link-up plays like one-touch passes and also alternate in weaving into open space via off-ball movements. And lastly, Silva must allow Iwobi more freedom to navigate and be assertive at will considering how well he can progress the ball on the run.
Everton must surely like Iwobi’s early season play and the hope for both is that this is just the beginning.
(NB: Most newsreaders will not display the gifs and animations used in the article, please click through to the website)
Editor's Note: Thank you to Steve for an excellent article; Steve will be guest writing for us at RBM this season, specializing in analytical pieces such as this.