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Africa Cup of Nations 2019: Nigeria 3-2 Cameroon - Alex Iwobi steps up when needed most 

  • After his matchwinner secured Nigeria's quarter-final place overnight, we take a closer look at the Arsenal midfielder - often misunderstood
Modified 20 Dec 2019, 23:43 IST

Iwobi wheels away to celebrate his side-footed winner, propelling Nigeria into the AFCON quarter-finals
Iwobi wheels away to celebrate his side-footed winner, propelling Nigeria into the AFCON quarter-finals

If you observe from afar, without having watched the match, you'd assume Arsenal midfielder Alex Iwobi was the creative hub as Nigeria eliminated AFCON holders Cameroon on Saturday night.

In fairness he was but not in the dominant, influential way you might expect. Instead it was more of a typical Iwobi-esque manner, which rather describes his playing style succinctly. 

To fully understand that, you'd need to pay close attention to how he regularly performs for the Gunners. A source of much frustration for a large portion of supporters, his persistent indecisiveness, questionable decision-making and wasteful finishing continue to cloud perception on the 23-year-old's importance and value to a team in transition. 

For his country though, it's an entirely different story. At 23-years-old he already has 33 caps and captain John Obi Mikel's dwindling performances in recent years have proven a timely reminder they need a new star to lead them forward. Iwobi has been tasked with that responsibility, despite flattering to deceive on the international stage at times too.

Iwobi's inspirations growing up and a subtle playing style

Recently, he revealed he looked up to Jack Wilshere when growing up in the academy years at London Colney and there are similarities in their playing style. Neither is the type that dictates games but they equally don't need countless touches to make a difference in the final third, being able to light up games with moments of subtle brilliance both on-and-off the ball.

The case in point? His match-winner on this occasion. First international goal in 15 appearances, it was his first goal dating back to a consolation strike against England at Wembley last summer during a pre-World Cup friendly.

But it was the type of finish that often gets overlooked, because on the eye it seems so simplistic. Cameroon's backline were still reeling after conceding Odion Ighalo's second strike of the evening just three minutes before, but couldn't have seen a marauding Iwobi accelerating forward on the counter-attack through midfield. 

He showed great attacking awareness and anticipation to sense the attack developing, sprinting forward and presenting himself as an unmarked option for Ighalo to his right. The goalscorer turned creator, feeding an inviting pass through centre-back Michael Ngadeu-Ngadjui's legs but Iwobi still had work to do. Crucially, he remained composed and ignoring André Zambo Anguissa's challenge to place his side-footed finish beyond Ajax goalkeeper Andre Onana's best efforts from close-range.

Iwobi celebrates with teamwhile star man Ighalo (far left) stresses they keep their heads
Iwobi celebrates with teamwhile star man Ighalo (far left) stresses they keep their heads

Midway through the second-half, it was fitting he scored at that stage in an unpredictable encounter which could've gone either way. Having been largely on the periphery, he struggled to get on the ball enough to create many opportunities despite brief encouraging moments.

Three key passes, 72.7% pass completion rate, one completed dribble but just 25 touches in 90 minutes, this was an encouraging display from someone with plenty of upside but needs the right environment and system to thrive. He has insisted his preference is to play in the number ten role for Arsenal, though that isn't a feasible option. Not only stacked with competition - Mesut Ozil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan - but Unai Emery's preference for the 4-3-3 doesn't allow players to have such freedom in his system.

There were instances of this last term for Arsenal, predominantly in the Europa League group stages and lesser-fancied PL sides, though they were too infrequent to justify a regular starting berth.

Therein lies the problem because consistency has been a continuous struggle since his breakthrough in the 2015/16 campaign. With Egypt's conquerors South Africa to come in next week's quarter-finals, they need his creative influence now more than ever.

Published 07 Jul 2019, 10:51 IST
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