Ahead of Arsenal’s clash with Liverpool at the Emirates Stadium on Saturday many will have been surprised to see Henrikh Mkhitaryan included in the Gunners’ starting XI ahead of the in-form Alex Iwobi. However, there was in fact sound tactical reasoning behind Unai Emery’s decision to opt for the 78-cap Armenia international.
When Iwobi was introduced from the bench in the second half, with the home side already 1-0 down, he undoubtedly had a big impact on the match. Aside from his fearless dribbling and relentless pressing, the Nigeria international’s delightful through ball provided the assist for Alexandre Lacazette’s all-important equaliser.
At this point it would have been easy to consider not starting Iwobi to have been a mistake, especially considering it was Mkhitaryan he replaced in the 67th minute. However, it was the former Borussia Dortmund man’s presence that contributed towards the stage being set for Iwobi to shine.
Iwobi is very much an all or nothing player in that whilst he is capable of producing definitive moments, he regularly gives the ball away in his relentless attempts to forge an opening for his side. In his short time on the pitch, Iwobi was dispossessed as many times as the man he replaced was.
It was vital that Arsenal didn’t let the game get away from them in the early stages, as it so often has in recent encounters with the Reds. Mkhitaryan’s reliability in possession ensured that their defensive safety net remained in tact for so long.
In his time on the pitch, the 29-year-old recorded a pass accuracy rating of 77.1%. Iwobi, however, managed only a 66.7% accuracy rating. For the final 20 minutes or so, with the Gunners chasing the game, the 22-year-old’s erratic but aggressive and direct distribution was acceptable as Emery’s side had no choice but to force the issue.
Up until that point, however, it would simply have caused Iwobi to be a liability rather than a game-changer. Emery timed his substitution perfectly, giving his secret weapon just enough time to give his side an attacking edge without undermining them defensively. Arsenal’s well-deserved point against high-flying Liverpool is proof enough that starting Mkhitaryan over Iwobi was something of a tactical masterstroke.