Thursday, April 25, 2024

Forward Foreword

Arsenal have quietly prioritised rebuilding in the defensive areas of their squad so far this summer, with Bernd Leno and Stephan Lichtsteiner already secured and Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Lucas Torreira reportedly soon to join them. This makes a lot of sense for Arsenal, who were light on experience, quality and numbers in these departments.

The squad is seen as top heavy and with some justification. Alexis Sanchez’s reliability as both creator and scorer of goals meant that the Gunners needed to sign two attacking players to replace him, in Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan. Alexandre Lacazette was also procured 12 months ago, while Mesut Özil signed an uber lucrative contract extension back in January.

Arsenal regularly field a midfield that contains both Ramsey and Özil and a forward line boasting both Aubameyang and Lacazette, as well as Mkhitaryan for creative balance. There is quite a lot going on there. I would argue too much on occasion. The prospective signing of Lucas Torreira and the new deal awarded to Granit Xhaka (and Ainsley Maitland-Niles behind them) implies that Unai Emery wants to give his midfield a more secure foundation.

Assuming Torreira and Xhaka are pegged as starting XI players- that takes away another space for one of the attackers. A lot of the forwards are on good, secure contracts at this stage, with the exception of Aaron Ramsey. The Welshman’s contract situation may well solve this issue if he elects not to sign, as I wrote a few weeks ago.

Reports suggest that Emery is keen to retain the Welshman and he seems to fit the Spaniard’s ideal for a high pressing, high energy midfield. It is difficult to see how Ramsey and Özil are accommodated in the same midfield as Torreira and Xhaka. Aaron needs to play with a Xhaka style deep lying playmaker to play his best football. His two most prolific seasons have come when partnered alongside Mikel Arteta and Granit Xhaka for sustained periods. For Ramsey to flourish, Xhaka needs to remain in situ.

If Emery opts to play Lacazette and Aubameyang together, then Mesut Özil would be a very valuable commodity. Ramsey’s darting runs into the box become less important with two accomplished goalscorers upfront and Özil’s chance creation would assume greater priority. If Emery does not see fit to put Lacazette and Aubameyang into the same team, then maybe Ramsey’s third man running prove a more valuable commodity.

However, it is not just Ramsey’s contract that potentially forces this issue- it’s Özil’s. In January, the German signed a £350,000 a week deal. He signed it on the final day of the January transfer window and I don’t think that is a coincidence. I think Özil and his agents were trying to flush out potential suitors in the market. Having just lost Sanchez, the Gunners could not afford to lose Mesut too and so they summoned up the best offer.

In short, nobody else was interested in paying Özil that sort of money in January, so it stands to reason that a buyer won’t suddenly emerge from the shadows this summer- especially as he seems to be nursing a back injury. So even if Emery did consider Özil dispensable, it’s doubtful that a buyer could be identified easily.

The manager probably has to make it work- and, let’s be clear, there are worse tasks for a new coach than to try and accommodate a top class luxury playmaker in his prime years. He could, of course, station Özil out wide, but this always strikes me as shoehorning where the German is concerned. It seems to be a halfway house option that does not fully satisfy.

Personally, I would be happier for Ramsey to move into a wide right role, the likes of which he played during the middle part of 2015. But it is unlikely he will sign a contract on that basis. In any case, I think Henrikh Mkhitaryan has been a canny addition to this Gunners team. He is the only natural wide playmaker in the squad with the exception of the inconsistent Alex Iwobi.

His partnership with Aubameyang, who is the only untouchable in the attack in my opinion, is already well established. Mkhitaryan can also play on either flank or through the centre, which makes him valuable. He is not necessarily the most talented of Arsenal’s attacking fleet (though no poor relation either), but he is the most adaptable and the most unique.

Having signed the Frenchman for £50m last summer, Alex Lacazette also has a strong contract. He impressed enough during his debut season to suggest there is an exciting striker with an eye for goal and clever link-up play. It would be a brave decision to sell him now, but Arsenal either need to find a system where he can partner Aubameyang or else shoehorn Aubameyang out on the left hand side- where Emery might end up shoehorning Özil anyway.

Were Lacazette willing to provide competition and support for Aubameyang as the main central striker, then the entire quandary is solved in an instant. But that seems unlikely. Lacazette’s future would also be linked to Welbeck’s, with only 1 year left on the England man’s deal, Emery would not want to lose two back up forwards in one window. The equation is delicate.

Welbeck is also a valuable squad option because he can play anywhere across the front line. While the Gunners do not lack numbers in attack, they arguably lack a pinch of variety. Mkhitaryan is comfortable as a wide playmaker, but they could probably use a more traditional wide option. Since the sales of Chamberlain and Sanchez, Arsenal do not possess many players capable of beating a man.

The departures of Wilshere and Cazorla further deplete the roster of dribblers. There is a good argument that one of Arsenal’s attackers should be sold to raise the funds for such a player. That would balance the options a little more favourably. Depth is of course preferable, but it has to be well tuned depth, simultaneously offering variety and stability- which is a delicate balance to strike.

Of course, Emery may choose to utilise a midfield diamond, which would allow Lacazette, Aubameyang, Ramsey and Özil into the same team. Torreira played at the base of a diamond for Sampdoria. But it is not a system that has ever convinced me for a top side. It lacks width which presents an issue for a team like Arsenal, whose opponents often like to funnel them into as narrow a shape as possible.

It puts an enormous strain on the full-backs to provide width without an obvious partner to combine with- we saw how this effected Hector Bellerin’s game last season. Ramsey on the right of a diamond makes some sense, but I am not convinced Xhaka playing on the left of a diamond is as logical. Again, it just seems like shoehorning. At the very least, I think an attacking side needs a wide playmaker like Mkhitaryan to create overloads with the fullback in wide areas.

Of course, Arsenal probably don’t need a midfield base of Xhaka and Torreira in every fixture. The Gunners had a formidable home record last season, largely achieved with a progressive pairing of Xhaka and Ramsey. Only the top two came away from the Emirates with all three points. Lingard, Pogba and Silvas Bernardo and David were all on the scoresheet in those games, which tells you that more enterprising midfields were able to compete with Arsenal’s engine room.

Emery was noted for his cautious approach to big games at Sevilla and it could be that he repeats that trick in North London. In the short term, it is probably advisable for Arsenal. City can play with de Bruyne and Silva in a midfield 3 against anybody because they are one of the best teams around. Arsenal are not and will have to cut their cloth in these matches and they certainly need to address their away form with some urgency. That means at least one sizeable head will need to roll in the forward areas.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto– Or like my page on Facebook.

Renowned Arsenal historians Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews and I 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 to order here.

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