Last season, Alex Iwobi seemed settled for another frustrating season on the Everton bench until the appointment of former England international, Frank Lampard.
The appointment of the Chelsea legend didn’t provide the impetus Everton longed for but in addition to the signings of midfielders Dele Alli and Donny Van De Beek, there was also a reawakening of old faces.
Iwobi understood he had found a new refuge and whatever his Everton career had been about up until that point didn’t matter. It was a new period and it came with new opportunities and how well did he step into the frame.
In his earliest years, Iwobi held promise as a central midfield player. Although inconsistent, he could provide the killer final pass and had an eye for the cracks and going through the laces.
Arsene Wenger used Iwobi out wide as he became a part of the Arsenal first team. At the age he was, he was comfortable playing anywhere at the time, especially considering a brilliant Mesut Ozil was the man in his favoured position.
However, with the Super Eagles, he got the #10 role he loves to operate in and was instrumental to Nigeria’s performance at the 2018 World Cup qualifiers. That seems like a long time ago.
Iwobi has struggled for form ever since and was sold to Everton by Arsenal in a deal many still see as excessive in terms of valuation. On many occasions, the Nigerian midfielder failed to justify his hefty price tag. At some point, he seemed like money foolishly spent but he will have his versatility and patience to thank.
When Carlo Ancelotti was appointed Everton manager, he played Iwobi in the wing-back position and he seemed at home there. He however made a cryptic post which the Italian recognised and acted upon. It didn’t end well.
Iwobi struggled to find form and colour under Ancelotti and Rafael Benitez. The former Liverpool manager never just felt like the man for him as he struggled for playing time.
What has Lampard done to help Iwobi?
Lampard has given Iwobi freedom. The freedom to express his football without hurting the team’s shape or pattern.
During the Toffees’ late rush for survival last year, Iwobi played virtually in every midfield position and as a right full-back. His desire to stick it in has been admirable and has become an important part of his game.
“I like to get on the half-turn, get the ball forward. I am always trying to play to the attacking players and make something happen,” Iwobi told the Liverpool Echo last season.
“When I play infield, I get on the ball more and can take it up the pitch. I told him [Lampard] I’d played there for Arsenal but not had the opportunity at Everton…that it’s where I am most comfortable and the position I play for my national team.”
Having spent the entire preseason with Iwobi, Lampard found a new, albeit interesting role for Iwobi, and it could be the magic needed to get the best out of him.
Iwobi’s confidence has grown in massive leaps since the tail end of last season. His passing is more precise and his understanding of space has improved.
Against Chelsea on Saturday, he played in the No.6 role and looked at home there for large periods. He had enough space to influence his style on the game and pinged passes at will, ending the game with two key passes.
While his 81.6% pass success rate can be improved upon, his presence in that role and his recent great churn of energy and ability to press means he will do a good job in the position.
Paired alongside Abdoulaye Doucoure, another energetic midfielder, in a two-man holding midfield position, Iwobi found the space and freedom he needed to dictate the game at his pace and put it under control.
At 26, he’s aiming for new levels in his career, and new levers are expected to be activated and the magic may be in those pockets and acres of spaces.
Everton are also making new midfield signings in Amadou Onana and Idrissa Gueye with competition for places expected to increase as a result. Iwobi stands as one of the best the team has at the moment and as long as he gets his spatial awareness in check, it’s a wrap for him.