Back in January, I wrote a piece reflecting on the strange holding pattern much of the Arsenal fan base had found themselves in. Many popular, familiar players had departed in quick succession, as well as a legacy manager. Arsenal is a football club that has undergone a lot of turnover in recent years.
As such, we had a group of players and even a Head Coach that we were still getting to know. Formality permeated our relationships with the current squad, as we idly discussed the weather or the state of public transport in order to fend off awkward silences. In football, good results fix any relationship and there are signs of the Arsenal support re-engaging with the team.
Alex Lacazette is at the forefront of this Bonfire of the Formalities. His name is sung louder and with more gusto than any other. He is the doyen of the North Bank as the memory of the (eventually) popular Olivier Giroud begins to fade. Lacazette was superb again on Monday evening against Newcastle, the picture of relentlessness that has come to characterise his performances this season.
He was supremely unfortunate not to provide the final flourish to a fantastic team move just before half time. He eventually helped himself to a goal after one of the most unorthodox 1-2s of the season. That he was assisted by his good friend and partner in crime Pierre Emerick Aubameyang was significant. The two were slightly awkward panic buys in truth, despite their quality.
Lacazette was a player Wenger really could have purchased in the summers of 2015 or 2016 had he really wanted to. He appeared to ‘settle’ on the Frenchman in 2017. The purchase of Aubameyang was irresistible but even more maladroit, coming just six months after Arsenal had splashed £50m on Lacazette.
Arsenal are very fortunate that the pair have forged such a strong friendship, because there was a high likelihood of dysfunction when a desperate Arsene Wenger took the plunge on Auba. Auba and Laca have developed a formidable and quite unusual partnership. The extent to which we, as fans, consider them as a pair is quite interesting too.
I must say, I find the compulsion to choose between them in some quarters a little confusing. Arsenal might need to consider an unpopular sale somewhere in the squad given their fiscal situation. But selling either one of Aubameyang or Lacazette takes a lot of goals out of the team that would need replacing.
Any money accumulated from the sale of either would be immediately relinquished on a replacement, rendering the exercise a little pointless. Not least because finding suitable replacements would not be straight forward. Look at Chelsea’s striker issues. It wasn’t long ago that Giroud and Sanogo were Arsenal’s striking choices.
I think the way Unai Emery has utilised both Lacazette and Aubameyang has been close to perfect. In a sense, they have subverted the old fashioned convention of the strike partnership. Though they can and do play together well enough, the way Emery has shared game time between them has been very beneficial. Effectively, Arsenal have ‘gamed’ their close friendship off the pitch to create an environment where they are happy to share one another’s successes.
Whether on the pitch together, or sharing game time 60-30 or 70-20, Auba and Laca offer completely different qualities that pose very different problems for opposing defences. Adrian Clarke covered them comprehensively in a recent Breakdown special, but their differences add up to more than the sum of their parts.
They complete each other, but not solely in the way they combine and interact in isolation. Back in December, I wondered aloud as to why strikers like Aubameyang have become so undervalued in the modern game. In contrast, Lacazette has become so popular with the Emirates crowd because his qualities are so visible, his harrying and hunting down of opposition defenders in particular.
Aubameyang’s work rate, especially in wide positions, is hardly lacking either. The Gabonese also makes positional sacrifices, often playing on the flanks, whereas Lacazette is pretty much always selected in his favoured position through the middle. When played together, both can play a ‘split striker’ system to excellent effect.
We saw this in home victories against Chelsea and Manchester United and the second half against Spurs at home. In possession, they coalesced into an orthodox front two, but out of possession, they scampered towards the opposition full-back to close down the escape routes for Kepa, Lloris and de Gea. Though there is plenty of overlap in the types of goals they score, they offer very different qualities to the attack, which are both very valuable according to the opposition and the game state.
Lacazette has really developed his hold-up play, which could have been a real gap in the squad after the departure of Olivier Giroud. Lacazette is excellent at coming away from the front line to knit moves together with intelligent, ‘bumped’ off passes. The Frenchman has developed an excellent understanding with both Aaron Ramsey and Mesut Özil, his qualities melding together with Arsenal’s attacking midfielders.
The relationships he formed with Özil and Ramsey were instant. He and Mesut combine on the ball excellently, with both players favouring short distance, one touch passes. Özil’s goal against Liverpool last season is probably the prime example of this. Likewise, Ramsey meshes with Lacazette because Laca creates space for Ramsey’s powerful late runs from midfield. It is no coincidence that Aaron enjoyed such a good season in front of goal last year with Lacazette leading the line for the majority of the season.
Lacazette thrives on turnovers- both benefitting from and forcing them- centrally, he is a nuisance to centre halves. Aubameyang, on the other hand, offers greater threat when service arrives from wide positions. Auba has enjoyed Kolasinac’s penchant for driving to the by-line. If Lacazette is good at moving away from the front line to weave play together, Aubameyang is unrivalled at finishing moves, especially when they germinate from wide positions and counter attacks.
Lacazette likes the channels and players enjoy running into the space he vacates and he thrives on turnovers. Aubameyang dominates in a more counter attacking style with his runs in behind defenders and his super human ability to find space in the most congested of penalty areas. Defensively speaking, the Frenchman is excellent at triggering the press, but Auba has the speed and the presence of mind to chase down an opposing full-back.
Lacazette sacrifices himself off the ball, Aubameyang compromises his preferences positionally. Together, their spread of qualities virtually completes the attacking set. They are not an orthodox partnership in the way that Bergkamp and Henry, or Yorke and Cole were. But they complete one another.
As a pairing they have, in my view, been the difference between Arsenal making a serious challenge for the top 4 and being cut adrift in 6th once again. Arsenal fans need not feel the need to choose between them, but should instead revel in the fact that we have both of them. They make one another, and the team, stronger.