The Athletic :
In so many areas of his table-topping Everton squad, Carlo Ancelotti has talented players with international pedigree.
The Italian knows his best team. He knows who can come from the bench to help protect a lead or if they need to chase a game.
But as the transfer window closed in England on Monday evening, one intriguing uncertainty remained: What does he do with Alex Iwobi?
A player signed in August last year by his predecessor Marco Silva in a deal potentially worth £34 million is already approaching a crossroads in his brief Everton career.
Iwobi is only 24 and is a player who has not yet fulfilled his potential, but he will not have been deaf to the whispers Everton that were willing to sell him in this summer.
His 14 months at Goodison Park have been underwhelming — just one goal and one assist in 28 Premier League appearances, 19 of them starts and only eight league starts since Ancelotti was appointed at Christmas. He will also be aware the left-sided remit he was signed to fill is no longer a guaranteed position in the new manager’s evolved 4-3-3 formation, which sees Andre Gomes on the left of a three-man engine room and Richarlison on the same side of a free-flowing attack.
But as the Everton manager takes stock of his squad over the international break, having moved on another highly-paid former Arsenal winger who was surplus to requirements by loaning Theo Walcott to Southampton, he may see signs that Iwobi can serve a purpose. He just needs to decide where he fits in.
The Nigeria international timed his best performance in a long time well, coming on in the 25th minute of the 4-2 home win over Brighton & Hove Albion last weekend. As Richarlison hobbled off, Iwobi needed to perform much better than his previous top-flight cameo from the bench, away to Crystal Palace the previous Saturday.
Those two substitute appearances, although contrasting in length, underline the dilemma Ancelotti faces over using Iwobi.
Let’s start at Selhurst Park, when Iwobi replaced James Rodriguez in the 86th minute with Everton holding onto a 2-1 lead and under increasing pressure.
As Palace pressed and pushed, the visitors desperately needed to keep the ball and take the sting out of their attacking play. But in the eight minutes, including stoppage time, he was on the field, Iwobi lost possession three times. He completed just one pass. His lack of composure allowed Palace to break down the left twice in about 30 seconds, although they were unable to capitalise.
He was not the only Everton player who struggled in such a tight encounter. Tom Davies had even less involvement, coming on in the 90th minute, but he also lost the ball on three occasions.
It made for a jittery ending in south London.
Alex Iwobi will have his work cut out to become a regular starter this season (Photo: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)
However, Iwobi’s form in the Carabao Cup has been much more promising. He was unfortunate to miss the 3-0 win over Salford City with an injury. In that match, Anthony Gordon, who is five years Iwobi’s junior, had a particularly bright game.
So he had a point to prove when given a starting place in the third round tie at Fleetwood Town, and, to his credit, he took his chance. His assist for Richarlison’s second goal of the night, a classy back-heeled pass, stood out and he played a part in two more goals during the 5-2 victory.
Even more encouraging was that performance against Brighton. He directly created Rodriguez’s first goal — his first league assist for Everton — and then did his best impression of the Colombian with a sumptuous through-ball for Abdoulaye Doucoure to tee-up the former Real Madrid man’s second.
Iwobi was making things happen. Only Rodriguez and Doucoure were involved in more passages of play that resulted in shots, and importantly he was getting the ball into the area.
He had also been far less profligate than in the Palace game. His passing accuracy was 82.6 per cent and he completed 19 of his 23 passes — comparable with man of the match contender Doucoure, who played the full 90 minutes and completed 52 of 56.
Given more playing time, Iwobi’s attacking metrics are promising. It’s presumably why Silva and director of football Marcel Brands paid so much for him when they were unable to land Palace’s Wilfried Zaha last summer.
Last season, when he made 29 appearances in all competitions, Iwobi’s number of progressive passes — which Ancelotti demanded more of after taking over — was notable, and he contributed the second-highest amount of passes into the opposition penalty area of any Everton player.
He is willing to take risks on the ball, to attempt shots and, although it can lead to him being dispossessed, it can also create openings.
According to Whoscored.com, Iwobi’s overall shots per game average last term was 0.9 — second-most at Everton only behind Richarlison, who made seven more appearances than him. He was also third at the club in terms of average key passes per game with one, behind Lucas Digne (2.1) and Gylfi Sigurdsson (1.5). He was joint third, too, when it came to dribbles per game on 1.3, with Richarlison (1.7) and Seamus Coleman (1.4) ahead of him.
The statistics point to a better player than the overall impression he has left on Everton supporters up until now. So often, Iwobi fails the ‘eye test’, appearing to switch off at key moments or to not cover as much ground as others. Combined with his price tag, it has led to an understandable degree of scepticism.
Given the strong options available to Ancelotti after a successful summer in the transfer market, Iwobi will have his work cut out to become a regular starter. And when he does play, he will need to find far greater consistency than he has so far in an Everton shirt
That will be more difficult coming off the bench, but with his confidence hopefully boosted after the Brighton game, Iwobi may become one of many in Royal Blue who is dragged up a level by the team’s talented new recruits — especially Rodriguez.
Ancelotti, a man rarely prone to knee-jerk assessments, is unlikely to simply give up on Iwobi in the short-term.
With Everton hoping to compete for both domestic cups and secure a top six finish this season, he may just have an important role to play.