I’m pretty sick of talking about the various ways that Arsenal’s defence / defending (delete as preference dictates) sucks arse. I could happily live out the rest of my days never having to pontificate on Calum Chambers’ athletic profile, Sokratis’ technique, David Luiz’s decision making or why in the name of blue fuck Skhodran Mustafi elects to rage quit on every remotely hairy defensive situation.
Because, honestly, with each passing game I feel like Alan fucking Hansen- and not the fresh, sardonic early 1990s version. So as a change of pace, I have decided to write about why Arsenal’s attack is not very good. Feeling re-energised? Excellent, now, in the words of Bill Hicks, bear with me while I plaster on a fake smile and plough through this shit one last time.
Of course, I am being disingenuous in describing Arsenal’s attack as ‘not very good.’ The individual attackers themselves are, in the main, very good indeed. The talent allocation in the squad is so front-loaded it’s a wonder that the pitches at London Colney have not become noticeably slanted. Mesut Özil, Nicolas Pepe, Alex Lacazette and Pierre Emerick Aubameyang is an attacking quartet that ought to be the envy of the Premier League.
The problem is that they don’t fit together in any decipherable way. Lacazette and Aubameyang are great pals, but they’re not quite in the Cole and Yorke or Bergkamp and Henry vintage when it comes to on-pitch telepathy. Yet in a strange way, Arsenal need both of them for different reasons.
Aubameyang is an elite goalscorer and the one member of the quartet whose place should be considered non-negotiable. Even when played in a slightly less than optimal wide role, he shits goals. However, the vast majority of his good work is executed in the final 20 yards of the pitch. When he plays without Lacazette, there is a risk of him becoming isolated.
Auba really needs two wide players and / or a number 10 to take care of the water carrying for him. Lacazette is much more of a 9.5 and he creates a link between midfield and attack. However, away from home, his end-product is verging on miserable. I actually think Nicolas Pepe has played reasonably well this season, even if it’s obvious he has more talent than he has demonstrated so far.
If you're mad about Pepe at Arsenal, we've got some bad news about what Pepe was at Lille. Pepe remains Pepe. PL refereeing remains PL refereeing. pic.twitter.com/RsA0w8HPFI
— StatsBomb (@StatsBomb) November 12, 2019
The Ivorian was often in the right positions and had the right ideas, but his execution has been found wanting. As soon as he seemed to find his range, Pepe soon found himself out of the team for off-pitch issues. I very much had the sense that Pepe was about to explode before he was quietly asked to take a seat on the bench. This has created a difficult situation for Arsenal.
The club quite literally cannot afford for this move not to work out. Arsenal threw their shirt on the poker table when they paid £72m to wrestle him away from Lille. They had to make fairly panicked decisions to sell Nacho Monreal and Alex Iwobi late in the summer transfer window to finance the deal. Pepe cannot depreciate on Arsenal’s watch.
Not after the botched handling of Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Özil and even Danny Welbeck. Already looking at a fourth consecutive season in the Europa League, Arsenal have a low credit rating right now. Pepe is an overdraft policy and with Özil, Lacazette and Aubameyang all out of contract in 2021, he ought to represent the medium-term future of the Gunners attack, at least.
It’s a complex situation because we just don’t know what it happening behind closed doors. The smart thing to do would be to try to remodel this attack in a way that can prize a tune from Nicolas Pepe. The team’s attacking structure was dependent on Aaron Ramsey in the second half of last season and Arsenal still haven’t recovered from his hamstring exploding (yet again) in Naples in April.
Trying to spark a partnership between Pepe and Aubameyang strikes me as a potentially productive avenue. Getting them nice and close together and interchanging on and off the ball could be mutually beneficial. That may mean that Alex Lacazette has to take a seat in the dugout, but the reality is that significant heads are probably going to have to roll in this uncomfortable menagerie.
This is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, of course. Arsenal can keep their options open- they needn’t make a snap judgement on who is hot and who is not just yet, but some experimentation is required. I was never truly convinced that a Pepe, Aubameyang and Lacazette front three could bear fruit.
A front three usually needs a spread of technical, physical and finishing attributes and I am not sure those three quite have it between them. The biggest source of Arsenal’s attacking woe is the lack of a natural left-sided option. Özil and Aubameyang were the wide players in Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Norwich, which tells you a lot.
The options for the left are developing younglets like Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and Reiss Nelson. Iwobi was not a world class left-winger, but he did act as a technical counter-balance for the attack. Arsenal’s last well-balanced attack saw Alex Iwobi as a technical counter-balance on the left-hand side to Theo Walcott on the right and Alexis Sanchez upfront, with Özil tucked in behind them pulling the strings.
Saka looked very promising when he first came into the team on the left, but he is very inexperienced and over a longer period of time that starts to show. The same would likely be true of Nelson or Martinelli were they given an extended run of minutes. Inconsistency is baked into the equation for a teenager.
Tellingly, neither Emery nor Ljungberg have trusted Özil and Pepe to play in the same team- I would imagine due to anxieties over their defensive output. At Liverpool, the defensive output of Mane and Salah is negligible, but they have the legs in midfield to cover which Arsenal…..don’t. Contract situations and age profiles mean that a rebuild in attack will be necessary for the club soon enough.
That is a shame, because with Champions League football receding further into the rear-view mirror and the funds exhausted on trying to get back into the land of milk and honey, Arsenal will probably have to settle on inferior replacements in talent terms. In terms of balance, however, this might offer the club a welcome opportunity. A happy medium, where Arsenal cash in on one or two of their current forward line to fund a partial rebuild would be the preferred option.