OVER the years, when Arsenal have come in for criticism, it is usually the defensive department of the team that has drawn the most unfavourable scrutiny. This is understandable, but a kind of “business at the front, party at the back” reputation has become the discourse. The talent in the current Gunners squad is certainly very frontloaded, but the weight of attributes has been unbalanced for some time now.
The issue is neatly summarised by the presence of best friends Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette. Both excellent players, both good pals but tactically they are difficult to accommodate simultaneously. Lacazette offers tactical shape and good link-up play but isn’t prolific enough to lead the line without significant goalscoring support.
Aubameyang is the opposite; he is a one-man goal factory, but struggles to offer structure and to link with teammates in the build-up phase. In essence, Arteta’s attacking structure has eased some of these issues by playing Aubameyang as an inside-left, which is the prime goalscoring position in Arteta’s system. With Bukayo Saka filling the wide left slot, the inside-left is free to make runs in the channels.
No player has scored more Premier League goals than Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang since he made his Arsenal debut.
And he's chasing *another* Golden Boot this season. pic.twitter.com/j4clnajH5f
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 24, 2020
This system allows Lacazette to operate as a pivot and Aubameyang makes off-ball runs. While Aubameyang was suspended, Gabriel Martinelli operated in this inside-left role and he took up the goalscoring slack. The Brazilian has not been able to demonstrate the same form since Auba’s suspension because they are similarly inclined. They are low touch players that like to move into goalscoring areas and are probably incompatible in the same forward line.
Both players have been moved between the left and right flanks in recent weeks and their impact has been reduced, culminating in Martinelli not making the 18-man squad for Sunday’s win over Everton. In the Newcastle home game, Martinelli was an unused substitute and Aubameyang opened the scoring in a 4-0 win. At Burnley and Olympiacos, Arsenal were unable to break the deadlock with both players on the pitch [Lacazette’s winner in Athens came after Martinelli had been replaced].
There are other issues in Arsenal’s front four. Nicolas Pepe is a mercurial talent, but as we saw in Athens last week, he isn’t the sort of player that holds structure. His high risk / high reward dribbling style means that sometimes he will frustrate and sometimes he will produce a cross or shot that splits a defence in twain. On Sunday he set up Aubameyang’s winning goal, but Richarlison was allowed an ocean of space to attack Bellerin down Arsenal’s right.
Every team needs a certain amount of devil and with that will come some wastage, that’s just part of the deal you do with wide players that make a difference. We can see already that having Pepe, Aubameyang and Martinelli in the same front line is potentially problematic. Forward lines tend to need something or someone to orbit around, a pillar to keep the other rotating elements in check. That is why Arteta has found it difficult to drop Lacazette, even when his form has been questionable. For the last two Premier League games, Arteta opted for Nketiah at centre-forward and Aubameyang in the inside-left space.
If we get CL and Auba stays, great. If we don't and he leaves, it's really not that bad. Especially given his age.
We have two young exciting goal hungry strikers in Nketiah and Martinelli, along with two dynamic wingers to support them in Saka and Pepe.
We'll be fine!
— (@ArtetaFutbol) February 24, 2020
The manager still felt that he needed a central pillar of some kind and he did not view Aubameyang or Martinelli as that player. Come the summer, this will probably cease to be an issue. Aubameyang will be 31 in June and Arsenal are probably no longer in a position to award late peak players high-end contracts – particularly if they are not in the Champions League next season.
Arsenal are in a period of renewal and having made a series of poor decisions over contract renewals and player sales, they haven’t left themselves much wiggle room to give Auba the type of salary he is entitled to ask for. It will be a shame to lose the Gabonese, but Arsenal are going to have to replace him sooner rather than later and it makes sense to try to do that with a decent sale price behind them.
It won’t be easy, because the club had spent five and a half years searching for the true heir to Robin van Persie’s goals when they signed Auba in 2018. What they can do is use the windfall to buy a striker that better fits with the players they have who represent at least the medium-term future and that will mean buying players that gel with the likes of Martinelli and Pepe.