Monday, 2 October 2017

Alex Iwobi shows promise at Arsenal as Mesut Ozil exit looms

While the future of Alexis Sanchez was a high profile story throughout the summer, and indeed one which continues to make headlines even after the transfer window has closed, the situation of his teammate Mesut Ozil was a much lower key affair. This despite the fact their contractual circumstances are exactly the same. Both players have deals which run out next summer, and neither has shown any inclination to renew and prolong their stay in North London. There were no shortage of suitors for the Chilean, with Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea all linked with his signature. However, there seemed to be very little interest in the German beyond some fanciful speculation over a move to Turkey. We'll never know if Arsenal would have been tempted to sell, but chances are if a bid had come in it would have been considered. There have been no talks about a contract extension since last March, and at this point it's widely believed that the 28-year-old will see out his Arsenal deal, allowing him to leave on a free next summer. It means that Arsene Wenger has to start thinking about life without Ozil, and how best to replace his qualities in the side. His replacement in the team for Sunday's 2-0 win over Brighton was Alex Iwobi, a Nigerian international of great promise and a product of the Arsenal academy. There were interesting parallels the manager's postmatch comments about the 20-year-old and what he wants from him, and what's he's said about Ozil over the years. While acknowledging his creativity, he regularly challenged him to score more goals, looking for him to hit double figures -- something he achieved for the first time last season. Following Sunday's 2-0 win over Brighton, Wenger told reporters that Iwobi's goal should be the first of a similar target. "A player like him must score 10 goals and he must as well give between six and 10 assists, and that's what I want from him," he said.

It looks like the Arsenal manager is considering Iwobi as the kind of player who can produce some of what Ozil does, and it will be particularly interesting to see how the German is treated as the season progresses. If, previously, Wenger was cautious or unwilling to leave him out of the team for fear of upsetting his star man -- particularly at a time when he was trying to convince him to sign a new deal -- that may no longer be a consideration. Ozil's reluctance to extend his contract changes the dynamic considerably. There has long been a school of thought that for all his talent and creative brilliance, there are certain games for which he is a bad fit. Generally speaking, they're the ones away from home against the other members of the top six. Arsenal's record in these games is pretty dismal, but the recent 0-0 draw away at Stamford Bridge showed a marked improvement from the 4-0 defeat at Anfield, and tellingly the German was not in the team because of injury. Iwobi was again asked to deputise and his hard-working performance helped contribute to a much better Arsenal display away from home. The common complaint is that Ozil is lazy, but that's a facile argument. He often covers more ground than any other player, he makes more sprints than most, but the reality of it is that he's just not defensively astute enough for certain games. You can get away with it on days when Arsenal dominate possession against so-called weaker opposition, but this flaw becomes much more obvious against teams who are better able to exploit it. There's no shame in it, by the way. Ozil is a wonderful talent, but not every player can be strong in every area. You wouldn't ask a tall central defender to play as a winger and expect him to do what Marc Overmars did, and in much the same way you have to accept that your defensive weaknesses might be greater when Ozil plays in certain fixtures. Until now, Wenger has been reluctant to address what is a fairly obvious issue, and while he'd surely prefer a situation in which Ozil wanted to stay, this makes his life easier in some ways. Not least because he has a young player with a lot of potential to do the job he needs somebody to do. There have been cases down the years -- Sylvain Wiltord and Edu spring to mind -- where players in the final year of their contracts find their roles diminished. Ozil's quality means it's not likely to be as pronounced in his case, but over the course of the campaign, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Arsenal manager start to prioritise the future at his expense.

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