Of all the terrible players I have seen, and I have seen a lot at Goodison Park, Alex Iwobi was one hundred percent on his way to being one of the names that we filed under ‘for the bin’. The complete U-turn in his performances have gone from under the radar to everyone talking about Iwobi and how the man who couldn’t string a pass together a mere six months ago is now the first name on the Everton team sheet. I delve into the facts and the tribulations of this incredible turnaround that, in my view, is here to stay.
In the summer of 2019, Everton had made no secret of the fact that they needed a creative spark in the midfield and out wide. The Marco Silva way was, as you would have seen glimpses of this season with Fulham, get the ball up the pitch as quickly as you can. Everton had courted Wilfried Zaha from Crystal Palace all summer only to be told they would have to pay in excessive of 70-80m for the Ivorian. In a strange turn of events, Everton ‘panicked’ and spent north of £35m on one Alex Iwobi.
No disrespect to Iwobi at all, but I had my reservations on this signing. Granted, I remember one of his better games, against Everton no less, where he absolutely dominated the game from start to finish and grabbed a goal that cold Saturday to boot. The problem was, this was in 2016 and pretty much every player in the Premier League could dominate the Everton team under Roberto Martinez.
Iwobi started relatively ‘ok’ under Silva, grabbing a goal in his home debut versus Wolves. His display that day was, in my opinion, a good start. Silva had played him in a sort of free role and Iwobi was darting in and out of the central number ten position, moving out to the wing to collect the ball. This seemed to work for a couple of games due to the pace that Iwobi possessed and also the pace that Everton had in the side at that time.
In all fairness, it went very much wrong a couple of months into 2019/20 season for Everton and Marco Silva, and also for Iwobi. One thing that stood out in my eyes was that Iwobi would seem to have a lot of possession of the ball, only for him to lose it. It was very frustrating as a fan to watch. Iwobi would win the ball or receive the ball in space, and it felt like he had 20 players around him, he would panic and the possession and/or chance would be lost due to the ball not being played quickly and effectively enough.
One thing Iwobi has got in abundance is pace. The lad, for his faults, can run and run and run. That is no exaggeration, he never seems to never look tired; even when the game is not going his way he will continue to run and run. The problem was he was running around the pitch with next to no purpose, and to coin a phrase that my father uses (when talking about Imre Varadi no less) he ran around ‘like a headless chicken’. This became a common theme, and Iwobi found himself in and out the team under the new regime at Everton, fronted by Carlo Ancelotti.
For Nigeria, the trend was not much better. In one international fixture for his country, he actually managed to go on the pitch and not pass or shoot at all in the entire game. Now, that was some mean feat for a player who is of the attacking mould. Something clearly had to give and quickly. Ancelotti decided to play Iwobi at right wing back in a 5-3-2 formation against Fulham. This change seemed to suit Iwobi as he was given the ball in the wider areas, which gave him the chance to run at players, make them make the decision for him, and with that he could play the right pass. A player will play well based on his confidence and he seemed to have it this game. Everton won the game 2-3 and was probably one of the better players on the pitch.
You would think after that game against Fulham it would be a steady improvement. That was not the case, as once again Iwobi was being shoe-horned into the central and wide positions that he previously had shown he couldn’t do, for whatever reason, anymore. Ancelotti left Everton for Real Madrid in the summer of 2021, with Rafael Benitez taking over. Benitez was near enough the last nail in the already built coffin for Iwobi, and the rumour was he was being told he could leave and look for another club.
In true Everton style, we had another twist to the tale. Benitez was sacked and Frank Lampard was placed in charge of the relegation-threatened Everton. Lampard seemed to see something in the confidence-destroyed Iwobi, as he started him regularly. The difference, though, was that he was playing in the centre of midfield.
When you think about it, it was a master stroke. The two Everton midfielders at the time, Abdoulaye Doucoure and Allan, were massively treading water, running around like the aforementioned chicken. Iwobi was placed into the middle, the role was simple. Break up the play and move the ball forward. Iwobi managed to do this to great effect against Newcastle United, and even scored the winning goal in a 1-0 win to cement Everton’s place in the Premier League.
The difference between the Iwobi of Silva, Ancelotti, and Benitez was simple. He was clearly playing with some sort of confidence, whatever Lampard had told him to do was undeniably working, Iwobi was playing like his life depended on it (and maybe it did) and was an integral part of the team that somehow managed to stay up in the Premier League, on the penultimate game of the season with that tremendous fightback vs Crystal Palace.
A lot of cynics had said the lad was going through a purple patch and was one of the players who got that ‘new manager bounce’. This season, Iwobi has gone from strength to strength. He looks like a natural leader at the centre of midfield with the license to move the ball with quick feet and his pace (which we all knew he had in his locker).
The importance of Iwobi is simple. When you look at how Everton set up, or attempt to set up, it is to make the team a lot more compact when off the ball and to release the wingers quickly on the counter-attack with a medium to high press to go with it. Watch Iwobi when Everton do not have the ball, he is the legs, the press, the tackler. Iwobi has been told to chase everything that moves, and he does that with a great ease at the moment. His confidence is evidently sky high. What has changed is anyone’s guess. Lampard seems to have worked out that the work rate that Iwobi has is second to none; he will still be running, at full pace, on 90 minutes. The signings of Idrissa Gana Gueye and Amadou Onana have only served to show the faith that Lampard has in that press and work rate to make this once struggling Everton team tick.
To end on an even bigger compliment, at the time of writing Iwobi has been nominated for the Premier League’s Player of the Month award for September. Not bad for someone who was being sold just a mere 12 months ago.