A week is a long time in football. Certainly when you’ve got three laborious Premier League games to negotiate with a desperately depleted squad in said week, anyway.
And certainly when, like Alex Iwobi, you are shoe-horned into various systems in two of those matches, none of which are seemingly conducive to utilising his mercurial talent. This season has generally been good for Iwobi: he’s unquestionably made positive strides on his drab first Everton campaign, even if the goals and assists tallies have hardly skyrocketed. But performances against West Brom and Chelsea, two games in which he was hooked before the hour, felt a slight retrograde step, leaving conversations about just where his best position is to resurface.
Yet it rather epitomises Iwobi’s enigmatic nature that perhaps his best of these three games was against Southampton last Monday, a match he took no part in until the 87th minute as he helped see Everton through to a nervy 1-0 win. Despite such a brief cameo, no player completed more take-ons than his three, while the sight of him fending off a trio of Southampton players by the Gwladys Street corner flag in injury time, swatting away these bothersome, persistent flies, felt like Iwobi in his element, having a ball with the ball.
Conversely, when starting as right-winger at West Brom on Thursday, a peripheral Iwobi floundered. Described by one poetic Twitter user as running ‘like he’s took something out the oven with a damp tea towel and can’t find anywhere to put it down’ (I couldn’t pretend to take credit for that), he carved out more blind alleys than in-roads into a burly Baggies defence. Indeed, it felt no coincidence that, when he was replaced by Allan in the 58th minute and Carlo Ancelotti reverted to the narrow midfield diamond which has served Everton well lately, an upturn in pressure arrived before Richarlison headed in the winner.
At Chelsea, he felt pigeonholed into a different setup more out of necessity than desire, as a makeshift right-wing-back tasked with shackling Marcos Alonso at left-back for 90 minutes. Perhaps Mason Holgate should share the blame for Chelsea’s opener for vacating the back line, but the more Iwobi drifted away from Alonso in the build-up, the more open space the Spaniard was generously afforded. His cross, met by Kai Havertz before deflecting in off Ben Godfrey, was a blow from which Everton or Iwobi even looked like recovering from. And so again, just shy of the hour, he was withdrawn.
Ancelotti plumped for a similar approach in the recent win at Liverpool, yet it’s clear why it was far more successful at Anfield. Yes, Liverpool and Chelsea are on entirely disparate trajectories currently, but also key to Everton foiling the Reds was Seamus Coleman, a much more natural defender than Iwobi, playing this same role and stifling Andrew Robertson impeccably. With Coleman now injured and Holgate and Godfrey among their three-man central defence, Iwobi was arguably the only other option at Chelsea, but just doesn’t have the same defensive discipline as Coleman, as Alonso and co. accentuated.
It’s hard to lay blame at Ancelotti’s door for this, either. Everton ultimately pocketed a creditable six points from nine in this seven-day marathon and only came undone to a vastly superior Chelsea. Not to mention the fact that, with an injury list approaching double figures, Everton named only eight substitutes at The Hawthorns and their nine at Stamford Bridge included two rookie goalkeepers and four outfield members of the under-23s. In short, Ancelotti wasn’t exactly spoilt for choice here.
And while Iwobi’s only other outing as an Everton right-wing-back, November’s 3-2 win at Fulham, ranked among his best individual performances since his August 2019 signing, that match felt the polar opposite of Monday’s. Against a lowly side happier to repel Everton overtures and bide their time, Iwobi was given greater licence to thrill; his mazy run at the start of the move for Everton’s second goal felt indicative of that. The hosts scored twice but given how little threat they posed, particularly in a one-sided first half, Iwobi could have been forgiven for viewing any defensive responsibilities as an afterthought.
Not so elsewhere in West London, against a Chelsea side oozing confidence and attacking prowess, who presented Iwobi with a stricter examination of his right-wing-back credentials. Yet it’s not that Iwobi is bad at the dirty work - take January’s win at Wolves, when he won the most duels and completed the joint-most tackles. He still found time to win four duels in his late appearance against Southampton last week, too.
But it’s worth remembering that both of those showings came from more advanced roles than right-wing-back. So, if Ancelotti learnt anything from a Chelsea defeat which otherwise saw a bunch of Everton’s old bad habits come to the fore, it may be that this isn’t an avenue worth pursuing with Iwobi; at least against less charitable teams than Fulham were on that November day.
Yet where fits Iwobi best? When he drifts, he feels utterly incidental to Everton’s game plan; so much so that you almost forget he’s on the pitch until he re-appears, running down a dead end or holding on to the ball for dear life against the opposition cavalry. In his 58 Everton matches, he’s played on each flank, both as a winger and wing-back, as well as the occasional appearance as Everton’s attacking fulcrum. It was similar at Arsenal where, per Transfermarkt, he played 78 times on the left, 24 on the right and 39 centrally. Debates about his suitability as an auxiliary defender may quieten now, but still the water is murky.
There is a sense from watching Iwobi that number ten may be the best fit, and perhaps the only real fit for him if Ancelotti continues with four midfielders and/or wing-backs. His only two Everton league goals, for instance, both against Wolves, came from finding space in the middle and finishing with aplomb. Even that aforementioned Fulham move stemmed from him cutting inside after darting down the flank. For all of his improvements as a right-winger this season, you wonder if everything good he does out wide he could still do just as well centrally.
Surely, continuity could at least breed clarity, in much the same way as it has for Everton’s more durable defence recently, or for the rejuvenated Tom Davies. Both the back line and Davies have benefitted from consistency; in personnel for the former, and in playing the same deep-lying midfield role for the latter. A similar approach towards Iwobi, rather than constant hopscotching between positions he seems ill-at-ease with, may also serve him well.
To watch Iwobi is a real white-knuckle ride of extremities; he’s the sort of player who could weave his way through an entire opposition XI only to trip over his shoelaces, and have neither of these events register as a real surprise to you. His over-scrutinised and oft-exaggerated transfer fee is neither his fault, nor a reason to give up on him, either.
But a happy medium and a permanent home must be found soon for Iwobi, a player who, at 24, still feels a case of untapped, if not yet unfulfilled, potential.