Life after Iwobi: Arsenal's options on the left

In a somewhat surprising move, Alex Iwobi, an Arsenal academy prospect who joined the club back in 2003, moved on deadline day, joining Everton for a fee that could rise to as much as £40m.

The Nigerian international had been a regular starter on the left of midfield last season and was set to feature prominently in the coming campaign.

His ability to pick the ball up from deep, wide positions and use his pace, running pattern and control to progress Arsenal into a dangerous attacking situation was unique among the attacking options at the club, while his defensive running was an asset for Unai Emery in top-six games.

All of this makes Iwobi a loss that will be felt by the Gunners. With that in mind, here are some of the options Arsenal could use from on the left this season.

REISS NELSON

The most obvious replacement. The 19-year old spent last season working under the impressive Julian Nagelsmann at Hoffenheim, where his improvement has been quantified by some impressive performances in preseason.

Nelson started against Newcastle on Sunday and didn’t look out of place, without setting the match alight.

The Englishman has played on the right for much of his senior Arsenal career, and even upfront at times at Hoffenheim (it’s rumoured the club see this as his long-term position).

However, during his youth career, and in pre-season, he’s looked most comfortable on the left, where his two footedness makes him unpredictable and aids his ability to cut inside or run in behind the defence. Nelson is a similar player to Nicolas Pepe, in that his assets are heavily weighted towards his end product, in direct contrast to Iwobi.

He averaged over 7.5 touches in the box for Hoffenheim, and with seven goals last season from just five starts last season, this suggests that he can contribute both in the build-up and then move into the box, a trait that will be even more useful with Emery use of fullbacks.

An 86.2% pass accuracy rate suggests that he holds onto the ball well, and 0.7 key passes isn’t bad for a 19-year old either.

On the flip-side though, five starts for a mid-table Bundesliga side suggests Nelson might not yet be ready for a full season of first-team action.

Arsenal badly lacked goals from the wing last season, and Nelson will give Arsenal dynamism, particularly in away games, where they often dominated the ball but were too predictable in the build-up.

However, with Nelson’s similarities to Pepe, Emery may sometimes opt for a player who contributes more to progressing the ball forwards, so as not to hurt Arsenal’s build-up play. Expect Nelson to play regularly, but be managed through the season.

Verdict: Ready to feature in a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, but will also be managed as the season goes on. Expect a start against Newcastle.

PIERRE-EMERICK AUBAMEYANG

Aubameyang is now the wrong side of 30, however, doesn’t seem to have lost the blistering pace that makes him almost unplayable at times.

Like Pepe and Nelson, the Gabonese is exceptional at arriving in the box to score, with 25 goals last season.

While a natural striker, Aubameyang played, and scored regularly, on the left-wing in the first half of last season, shoehorned into this position to fit both him and Alexandre Lacazette into Emery’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation.

Yet at the turn of the year, Unai Emery moved away from this setup, partly because Aubameyang doesn’t get very involved in Arsenal’s build-up play, being a natural ‘run-in-behind” striker.

He averaged just 19.2 passes per game, and this often caused Arsenal to look lopsided, and to be unable to progress the ball down one flank, making them very predictable.

While Nicolas Pepe will be able to provide similar dynamism from the right-wing, making Arsenal harder to defend against, Emery should consider the cost to Arsenal’s possessional play of starting Aubameyang.

Verdict: With Pepe’s arrival, there’s less of a need to shoehorn both Lacazette and Aubameyang into the side. Expect the occasional start from the left, but it will be rare.

HENRICK MKHITARYAN

The Armenian is now 30-years old, and last season looked to have begun the decline that footballers tend to suffer around that age.

Still, Mkhitaryan finished as Arsenal’s third-highest scorer in the Premier League last season and had very good patches of form.

One of Mkhitaryan’s best and most unique features is that he’s an elite tackler – he averages 1.1 a game, great numbers for an attacking player – which helps Arsenal’s press enormously as players can commit themselves to attacking positions knowing Mkhitaryan is likely to win a defensive duel.

His end product numbers are better than Iwobi’s too, with six goals and four assists last term.

However, the gap between his best and worst is growing, and last season he was often nearer to the latter. Too many times he was caught in possession, and towards the end of the campaign, he was a player who wasted opportunities.

His game time looks like being limited next season, and it’s these types of players that Emery should be phasing out if Arsenal want to play in the Champions League.

Verdict: Will be an important senior player in the Europa League campaign, but only an occasional Premier League player.

BUYAKO SAKA

The wildcard of this bunch, but according to some regular watchers of the Arsenal Under-23s last season, the player to watch in the coming campaign.

Saka impressed, particularly in one Europa League tie against Qarabag, with his willingness to dribble at opponents and take them on. His goalscoring for the Under-23s showed an end product too.

When running at defenders from the left, Saka dribbles at a unique angle, which gives him the correct body shape to step outside, a rare commodity amongst younger wingers.

The Englishman faces towards the opposite corner flag, fooling defenders stepping up to be level with him, opening a game allowing him to beat them for pace with a quick change of direction.

Importantly Saka is also left-footed, unique among this list.

Saka’s youth, however, makes him very raw, and the fourth choice of this list. He’ll feature a lot in the Europa League, however, expect only the odd substitute appearance in the Premier League.

Verdict: A development year, where Saka will sample much more first-team experience, but likely to only start in the case of an emergency in the Premier League. One for the future.

SO, WHO PLAYS THERE?

There’s no easy answer to this conundrum at Arsenal.

Without a genuine left midfield option complete with first-team experience at the club, expect Unai Emery to do what he does best – tinker with his options.

While Reiss Nelson should get considerable game time which will aid his development, starting Aubameyang on the left potentially provides Arsenal with a mouth-watering attacking trio.

In games against sides around the Gunners in the table, we could see Henrick Mkhitaryan to provide defensive reinforcement, while Buyako Saka is sure to be more integrated throughout the season.

One thing is for certain: a spot in Arsenal’s team is up for grabs. If someone grabs it with both hands, Arsenal might just have the attack to fire them back into the Champions League.