A Ticket To Wide

Given that Arsenal’s attack has undergone high churn in the last 12 months, it is understandable that Unai Emery and co have prioritised the defence, midfield and goalkeeper positions this summer. As I wrote a few weeks ago, I fancy the Gunners’ options, though plentiful, are a little unbalanced going forward largely due to a lack of natural wide players.

Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, Theo Walcott and Alexis Sanchez have all drifted out of the exit door over the last year, with Mkhitaryan, Aubameyang and Lacazette taking their places. It not only leaves Arsenal a little light of genuine wide forwards, but the loss of Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere, Alexis Sanchez and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain leaves them short of genuine dribblers.

Players that carry the ball and threaten to commit defenders with the ball at their feet are useful to a team like Arsenal, who often face organised, well manned defences. A good dribbler can pull opponents out of position and chisel away at a defensive brick wall. The current squad lacks a top class option in this mould. Aubameyang started as a wide forward against Boreham Wood on Saturday, the same position where he finished last season.

I am still to be convinced that we get the best use from the Gabonese out there, especially because he is not especially precise in possession. A wide forward is charged with forming part of the build-up, so economy with the ball is important. Sanchez’s attempted through balls were not a source of annoyance for me personally, but his tendency to be loose with far simpler, sideways passes was far more problematic.

It sounds as though the Gunners are not going to shell out for a wide forward now, not least because the transfer kitty is all but exhausted and the focus must be on departures. Some of those close to the exit door might be able to carve out a niche as a more natural wide forward option. Danny Welbeck has only one year left on his contract, but he finished last season well enough in a wide forward position.

Back in April, I wrote that Welbeck ought to aspire to replace Theo Walcott with Lacazette and Aubameyang ahead of him in the centre forward queue. Welbeck is capable of being a serviceable wide attacker. He holds the width of the pitch very well, especially when played on the left and generally does a good job of isolating and taking on full-backs with little ‘push and run’ bursts.

However, at the age of 27 with 1 year left on his contract, I am not convinced that being a back-up wide forward is a project he will commit his peak years to. I am also not sure Arsenal will be willing to give him a big pay rise to do it given that, truth told, he has not improved much since joining in 2014. It seems unlikely that Welbeck will be anything other than a rotation option and I think he might consider going to a midtable club for a more enticing role.

Forgotten man Lucas Perez offers a lot of the same versatility that Welbeck does. He can play across the front line, but wide forward seems to be the best fit for the Spaniard. (He played as a withdrawn striker in a 4-4-1-1 at Boreham Wood, for whatever that is worth). Perez is technically secure and fairly reliable in front of goal.

Welbeck is technically pretty secure and if Emery really does want to move to a high press, then Danny has the physical profile and work ethic to execute this game plan. But you would certainly prefer Perez in a white hot goalscoring situation. That said, Perez was clearly unhappy with the idea of being a squad player two seasons ago and after a frustrating season back on loan at Deportivo, it seems unlikely that Lucas, who turns 30 in September, will be any more enamoured by the prospect now.

There again, this could be viewed as a totally clean slate at Arsenal for the Spaniard. He has returned to London at the birth of a new era under compatriot Unai Emery. The new manager seems keen to give everyone a chance to impress him in training before deciding on who to lovingly place into the shop window. Perez wouldn’t be the most unlikely Arsenal career resurrection of recent years.

With the Europa League group stage during the first half of the season, there is going to be plenty of opportunity for fringe players to make an impression. Jack Wilshere was able to gradually play his way into the starting line-up last season, using Europa League matches as a platform to build his case for more regular inclusion.

Welbeck and Perez’s futures might be interconnected, but my impression is that both players will probably want to move on. This could present Reiss Nelson with an opportunity to become a more prominent squad player. Nelson has still yet to extend his contract with the club, so if Arsenal want to keep him, it looks like they will have to woo him a little.

Emery might be able to tempt Nelson into committing with the promise of some games in the Europa League in his favoured wide forward berth. The teenager, though still raw, possesses a lot of attributes that are not present elsewhere in the squad. He has a similar profile to Oxlade Chamberlain, he likes to drive at players with the ball at his feet.

There is the potential for a quid pro quo arrangement here. Arsenal need someone with Nelson’s (potential) qualities and Reiss needs to feel valued. I think there is a pathway for him at the club, whether or not he will be able to take it remains to be seen, but if Welbeck and Perez leave, a lot of the competition is removed.

I am, of course, assuming that Joel Campbell will not feature in this equation, even though wide forward is probably his ideal position. Alex Iwobi broke into the team as a creative presence from the left side of the attack. Teamed with Sanchez and Walcott, Iwobi was an impressive ball carrier in that role. I no longer think Arsenal’s array of forwards mesh with him quite as well with him from the left.

I think he is probably developing into more of a roving number 8, someone that can carry the ball over long distances without the burden of end product. In that respect, his short term aspiration should be to replace Jack Wilshere. We also have uncertainty over Aaron Ramsey’s contract at time of writing. If we arrive at a situation where the Welshman has to be sold, that could free up some funds to buy a proper wide forward.

As it stands, it remains a hole in the squad and one the club probably doesn’t have the funds to fix on a long term basis until next year as it stands. Danny Welbeck and Lucas Perez might wait to see who blinks first as they consider their futures, but I doubt either will fancy entering their 30s as a squad player at Arsenal.

The real winner from this situation could be Reiss Nelson, if he signs a contract extension and he is able to develop, but development is, as we have seen many times before, rarely linear. If the Gunners are able to move Lucas Perez, Joel Campbell and Danny Welbeck on quickly, the kitty might be sufficiently replenished to scour the market for a solution.

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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.