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Southampton will test latest Iwobi resurgence

The Nigeria international shone as Everton put Leeds to the sword, but how long will his latest burst of form last?

(IMAGO/Action Plus/David Blunsden)

As they came through the turnstiles at Goodison Park last weekend, the Everton faithful had no idea what to expect from their Toffees.

While the decision to relieve Rafa Benitez had reached a no-brainer stage, the jury was out still on new boss Frank Lampard. The former Chelsea player and manager had lost his opening league match in charge and, with opponents Leeds having looked impressive going forward in their previous match against Aston Villa, there was the very real prospect of a slow start metastasizing into something even worse.

What followed, however, was an effervescent, aggressive performance from the home side. The manner in which they set about making Marcelo Bielsa's side uncomfortable elicited investment from the home crowd and contributed to a commanding 3-0 victory. Leeds barely got going.

Amidst this maelstrom of movement, no one in Blue set the tone quite as impressively as Alex Iwobi.

From the blast of the whistle, the Nigeria international was clearly switched on, crashing into tackles, mopping up loose possession, carrying the ball forward with authority and creating dangerous openings with crisp, prompt passing.

It was a performance that came as a pleasant surprise to many, flying in the face of some of the more vehement criticism against him.

While the conversation around transfer fees will forever be tiring and reductive, there is some merit to the idea he has not always seized games by the scruff of the neck since swapping north London for Merseyside.

Saturday, though, was different.

Part of that was simply getting the opportunity to begin with, and for that manager Lampard spoke highly of his application in training, describing it as a “demand” for a starting spot.

The more significant aspect was taking the opportunity given, of course, and in doing so Iwobi has done his chances of starting against Southampton this weekend no harm at all.

However, let no one – himself included – be under any illusions that the Saints will be as impressionable as Leeds were.

To take nothing away from the performance against the shellshocked visitors, there were two important factors that, to an extent, made it a little easier for Iwobi to assert himself.

The first is the sheer uniqueness of Leeds’ playing style.

Bielsa’s insistence on man-marking all over the pitch has the upside of putting opponents under pressure constantly upon receiving the ball. However, if that individual pressure is successfully evaded, the downside becomes apparent: huge spaces can open up for the player to run into. Combine that with a team-wide focus on dragging markers all over the pitch, and Leeds can be made to look quite ragged.

Of course, this is easier said than done. However, that bleeds into the second decisive factor: in Lampard, Everton have a manager who has implemented this approach against Leeds on multiple occasions at different levels and with differing quality of players at his disposal.

It was his Derby side that famously denied Leeds in the semi-final of the Championship promotion playoff in 2018/19, and while in charge of Chelsea he dominated the Whites in a 3-1 win last season.

Both of those factors will be a lot less relevant against Ralph Hasenhuttl’s Southampton.

The Saints are in decent form, unbeaten in their last three Premier League matches (taking in meetings with Tottenham and the two Manchester clubs) and a ferocious proposition in their approach without the ball. Crucially though, their pressing is much less chaotic than Leeds, and so Everton – and Iwobi, by extension – are unlikely to find and revel in the same sort of space they were afforded last weekend.

It is keeping the same level of performance against much more structured opposition that will provide the truest picture of Iwobi’s level.

Even amidst general underperformance, there have seen flashes of potential from the Nigeria international in blue. Saturday’s trip south will test the stamina of his latest surge of form.

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