“That’s the challenge I have. I will try to find a way to do it. We play so many games that everyone will get games. It’s always possible. Will I do it? Maybe. I don’t know. But I think it’s possible, yes.”
Arsene Wenger did not sound terribly convincing when quizzed on the prospect of teaming Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre Emerick Aubameyang together as a strike pairing back in January. Lacazette’s subsequent injury has allowed the question to cool softly on the window sill in recent weeks, but it may well be revisited soon enough- especially if Arsenal’s impoverished form continues.
Arsenal have not played with an orthodox front two for close to a decade, since Emmanuel Adebayor was sold in the summer of 2009 and Robin van Persie took the lone striker role. After van Persie’s departure, the Gunners clasped at a number of centre forward straws in the transfer market- the likes of Higuain, Suarez, Benzema and even Jamie Vardy have been cased unsuccessfully.
Alexandre Lacazette was meant to curtail the search for good, but for one reason or another, the manager was persuaded to spend £52m on Pierre Emerick Aubameyang just six months after spending a similar sum on Lacazette. This was partially to replace the soft trickle of goalscorers towards the exit door in January, with Sanchez, Giroud and Walcott leaving the club.
Prior to Lacazette’s injury, Aubameyang immediately took precedence in the starting line-up, suggesting that Arsene’s intention was not to use them as an old fashioned strike pairing. Strike duos have fallen out of fashion in the top echelons of European football of late, while Mesut Özil’s free role behind the centre forward adds a further layer of tactical complication for the Gunners.
However, I am not convinced that it is unworkable. From April until December 2017, Arsenal largely played in a 3-4-2-1 shape, with Özil and Alexis afforded free reign behind a single striker. I think the Gunners could set up in a similar formation, but invert the triangle at the tip, with Mesut floating behind a front two as opposed to two players drifting in free roles behind a lone front man.
Aubameyang’s Arsenal career is still in incubation- not least because he has joined during such a difficult time for the club. But one of the chief frustrations of the Özil, Mkhitayran and Aubameyang attacking trio favoured in league games thus far is the distance it creates between the Gabonese and the creative pair behind him. Mkhitaryan and Özil like to drop deep and become involved in the build-up.
Aubameyang operates like a more upmarket version of Theo Walcott, in that he has little interest in the game outside of the final 25 yards of the pitch. This has created a chasm in Arsenal’s attack, cutting off Auba’s supply line and isolating him. Broadly speaking, in modern attacking triangles, most strikers favour having a creator and a fellow goalscorer beside them.
Mentioning the Invincibles is the Arsenal blogger’s version of ‘Godwin’s Law’, but, as ever, that team set the blueprint for this attacking thrust. Thierry Henry was flanked by the creative juices of Robert Pires and the penetration of Freddie Ljungberg. Many of Pires’ Arsenal goals come as a result of him arriving fashionably late onto loose balls in the area, with defenders occupied by the presence of Henry and Ljungberg.
At the beginning of the 2016-17 season, Arsenal went unbeaten for 19 games with an attacking triumvirate of Iwobi, Walcott and Alexis. Either side of Alexis, Walcott provided the off the ball threat and penetrative running, while Iwobi carried the ball towards Theo and Alexis. It was beautifully balanced and also yielded Özil’s finest run of goalscoring form at the club.
At the moment, Aubameyang’s back-up consists of a pair of creators, but Mkhitaryan and Mesut do little to help occupy centre halves. In the 2007-08 season, with van Persie injured, Arsenal devised a fairly unorthodox front 2 with Adebayor and Eduardo da Silva. Eduardo played a hybrid role, moving out towards the left wing when Arsenal did not have the ball, but joining Adebayor upfront when they did.
Wenger concocted a similar strategy during the 2001-02 season, where Sylvain Wiltord flitted between right winger and support striker in away matches, moving the team seamlessly between 4-4-2 and 4-5-1.However, I wouldn’t envisage Lacazette playing as a wide forward next to Aubameyang, I don’t think that suits his skillset. I would see him operating a little more like Okazaki does for Leicester, providing a link between midfield and attack.
The Frenchman has shown a real aptitude for drifting away from the frontline to combine with Arsenal’s attacking midfielders with short combination passes. In other words, he has played his best football in the exact space where Arsenal are currently minding a bit of a gap. Lacazette could help create a bridge between Özil and Aubameyang.
Lacazette briefly enjoyed a burgeoning partnership with Danny Welbeck earlier this season, because Welbeck played in this space, providing support for the Frenchman. Use of a 3-4-1-2 system would mean reverting to a back three, so the onus would be on the wing-backs to provide width. The drawback of inverting the forward triangle is that the wing backs do not have a pair of inside forwards to combine with to help them progress up the pitch.
This is a problem that Hector Bellerin has been grappling with all season. His inside forward partner was Özil, who was often absent from the right hand side given his proclivity to drift into space. The German’s game is not really geared on coming to get the ball in that way. If anything, he moves away from the ball when the wide players are in possession, so that he can quietly hover into space.
With the likes of Rosicky, Chamberlain and Alexis now departed, Arsenal sorely lack dribblers capable of travelling with the ball without the need for assistance. This is why Iwobi is often picked regardless of form, because he is one of the few players Wenger has who is willing to carry the ball. A strike pairing would isolate the wing backs a touch, with the small added bonus that crossing becomes a more viable strategy with two strikers in the area. But Arsenal would need to be careful not to resort to hopefully whacking crosses into the area.
Personally, I am not hugely exercised about whether Arsenal play with a back 3 or a back 4, but it would need to be a 3 to make this system work. The irresolvable tactical quandary of this Arsenal squad is that the defenders and the midfielders are all more comfortable playing in a trio, but it is impossible for both to do so simultaneously.
Arsenal’s Premier League campaign has drifted into irrelevance, which does at least give the manager the opportunity for experimentation. At this stage, I see no harm in Wenger using these games as a testing ground for a strike partnership. Frankly, there is not a lot else to get excited about in what remains of this forgettable domestic campaign.
Myself and renowned Arsenal historians Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews have written a book about the tumultuous early years of Arsenal Football Club covering the period 1886 – 1893. ‘Royal Arsenal- Champions of the South’ is available for pre-order here.