Friday, June 2, 2023

Laca Balance Puts Emery in Auba Under Situation

The friendship between Pierre Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette is enthusing and, in a way, surprising. It would have been easy to envisage the two viewing one another as sporting enemies given that they are effectively competing for the same spot in the starting line-up. Upon Aubameyang’s arrival Lacazette was initially benched before succumbing to a knee injury.

That injury put the ‘Auba Laca’ debate on the rocks for a few months, not least because the Gabonese was ineligible for the Europa League and the team split into two factions as the league campaign petered out into meaninglessness. The pair have now enjoyed a full pre-season together and, as Wenger did towards the end of his tenure, Emery has played Aubameyang in a left sided forward role with Lacazette at centre forward in pre-season.

The Arsene era dragged on a little too long and we are seeing some of the unpicking Emery has to do. Mkhitaryan, Aubameyang and Lacazette were Wenger’s last three signings, while a £300k per week contract for Özil was sanctioned on the final day of the January transfer window. Four players Arsenal have sunk a lot of wage cost into that play in two, maybe three positions. A first world problem it may be, but it’s still a problem.

Wide left doesn’t play to Aubameyang’s strengths entirely, but he scored enough goals from the position last season to suggest it is not too much of an impediment to him. There again, if you have a world class penalty box striker capable of 25-30 league goals per season (fitness permitting), there is a good argument that you should look to maximise his strengths.

This piece on Stats Bomb nicely relays how effective Auba is in the penalty area. Against City, he started through the middle with Lacazette as a substitute. However, the Frenchman made an impressive cameo in the second half and immediately made Arsenal look a more dangerous proposition- from an admittedly low bar.

I would imagine that Lacazette will start the majority of games against everyone outside of the top 6, with Aubameyang to the left of him. Aubameyang has shown a willingness to provide a foil for his friend from the flank, saying after Sunday’s game, “There is a spark between us when we are both on the pitch together. We look for each other, we saw it on Sunday against City when he came on.”

Back in April, Aubameyang passed up on the chance of a hat trick by allowing Lacazette to take a last minute penalty against Stoke City, demonstrating an altruism and understanding between the two. In slightly less high stakes circumstances, Auba also happily laid on a goal for his teammate against Boreham Wood during pre-season from the left. As the partnership develops, Lacazette could do much to return the favour.

One of the most striking facets of Lacazette’s performance from the bench against City on Sunday was his aggression, he provided the muscle for the attack. He was willing to harry opponents from the front, which Aubameyang doesn’t quite do with the same fervour. I felt the Frenchman was unfortunate at times to fall victim to slightly over officious refereeing as he, fairly in my view, used his strength to muscle City players off the ball only to be penalised.

We already know that one of Lacazette’s more useful strengths is his ability to move towards the midfield and link play. This potentially leaves space for runners in behind him if he can draw a wandering centre half out of position. Aubameyang could profit from that kind of chess piece movement, with pawns and rooks being pulled across the board.

In this respect, Lacazette could operate a little like Firmino to Aubameyang’s Salah given the Frenchman’s ability to link play and appetite to hunt opponents- though one must be careful not to fall into the trap of demanding replication of a rival’s setup- balancing a team is an intricate science. Playing Aubameyang on the left is not 100% ideal for the ex-Dortmund man, but Arsenal could do with goals on the pitch (they scored 32 fewer than Manchester City last season).

It would be necessary for Lacazette to be his friend’s enforcer. Aubameyang is so effective in the box due to his dominance over short distances- he’s a sprinter rather than a marathon runner. He is also 29 years old and unlikely to increase his elasticity at this stage. If Arsenal use Lacazette as an agent to force turnovers it would, hopefully, shorten the space Aubameyang is asked to work in on the left hand side.

This could be especially tantalising if the Gunners can improve their ability to master transitions. In the blue sky scenario, Lacazette forces a turnover high up the pitch, the loose ball drops to Özil who finds the greyhound style bound of Aubameyang in “the Thierry Henry memorial corridor” between opposition right-back and centre half.

That’s an exercise in imagination on my part- a little like counting Monopoly money and, as we see with each Chelsea league title win, football deals in the far more brutal currency of reality. But I think this can be a fairly workable concept for the attack. Ultimately, Arsenal’s forward line is a little unbalanced no matter the combination of players.

In fact, most of Arsenal’s squad is unbalanced, but the forward line has a lot of individual quality and players in their prime which ought to reduce the impact. I still think that this squad is most suited to a back 3 given the lack of dominant centre halves and natural wide players. Arsenal have a top class number 8, a world class number 10 and two good strikers, all of whom could be well accommodated in a 3412 system.

However, Emery is almost certainly not going to do that, so I think Ramsey at 8, Özil at 10, Lacazette at 9 and Aubameyang as a high and quasi centralish false left sided forward will play against the league’s lesser lights. Lacazette at 100% effectiveness and Aubameyang at 80% job satisfaction could still prove to be a favourable equation to just making one of the two players happy. None of this is perfect, but perfect is a pipe dream.

Arsenal are rebuilding and blowing away the cobwebs of decline. The Gunners aren’t realistically trying to win the league, they are trying to get back into the top 4 and toploading their artillery in this way probably represents their best shot. Brendan Rodgers’ fairly average Liverpool team nearly won a league title by chiselling Sturridge, Sterling and Suarez (who played as a quasi centralish false left sided forward) into the same attack.

The squad lacks natural wide players, so almost anyone that plays on the left side of the attack is not going to be playing in their favoured position. It does seem a shame to shoehorn arguably the best player into that role, but Unai Emery has not been dealt a favourable hand with the composition of this squad. It’s likely to be unbalanced regardless of combination, so this might be the strongest hand Emery can play.

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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