The subject of Arsenal’s attack has gobbled up plenty of column inches in recent weeks and this column has been no different. Six of my last nine pieces on the site have principally dealt with the subject and if Arsenal have taught me anything this season, it is to keep doing the same thing over and over and over again. (Joking).
The issue with the attack is one of recruitment as much as it is Mikel Arteta’s tactical approach. Arsenal spent the best part of £185m on three attackers who can’t play together and then added a 32-year old Willian into the equation. Currently, Arteta selects Aubameyang (31), Willian (32) and Lacazette (29) more often than not.
That is an attack in its late peak years and the benefit of fielding a mature attack should be a sense of cohesion that experience can bring. Arsenal are instead still fiddling with the rubix cube for a triumvirate of attackers on their final elite contracts. However, scratch beneath the surface and there is the vague outline of a different future.
Aubameyang and Willian are on three-year contracts, so they won’t be going anywhere in a hurry, Lacazette had two years left on his deal this summer past and Arsenal made no attempt to tie him down to a new one, which tells you his medium term future lies elsewhere. Aged 25, Nicolas Pepe is not exactly wet behind the years but he is many years the junior of the team’s ailing first choices.
Beneath him, Arsenal have Gabriel Martinelli cooling softly on the window sill, with Bukayo Saka already buttressing a misfiring attack on a full-time basis. Eddie Nketiah sees plenty of game time in Lacazette’s role. In the short-term, Arteta has to find a way to mould his senior attackers into a more fearsome unit.
In the long-term, his tenure may well be defined by how he shapes the Arsenal attack of the future. Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka earned new contracts during summer and with funds limited and holes elsewhere in Arteta’s squad, in an ideal world the club will not need to spend precious transfer budget on another attacker unless they are directly replacing an outgoing squad member.
Say, Lacazette were to leave, or Pepe was to be considered damaged goods and sold on, or if Willian makes a permanent transfer to that chintzy Dubai restaurant, then they may need to use the money on a direct replacement. Arteta has the option to transform his misfiring attack by increments, coaching Pepe up to par and introducing Martinelli into the fray, like a dash of chili powder in a bland Bolognese.
However, Arteta has so far struggled to integrate more spontaneous attackers. Prior to his injury Martinelli was an unused substitute in four consecutive Premier League games following the 0-0 draw with Burnley in February. Martinelli was part of a misfiring front line at Turf Moor that saw him play on the right and Aubameyang to the left of Alex Lacazette.
At this point, Arteta realised that Martinelli and Aubameyang cannot both play wide in a front three because they are too similar. They are low touch players that look to make runs in behind, they are wide strikers as opposed to wingers and that creates an imbalance. Having two low touch forwards in the front line only works if you have two very creative types (usually one wide forward and one attacking midfielder) to balance them.
Arsenal don’t have a creative, attacking midfielder. Nevertheless, the refusal to even use Martinelli from the bench when Arsenal were chasing results at home to West Ham in March and away at Brighton in June suggests that Arteta has struggled to integrate Martinelli. The Brazilian’s burst of mid-winter form, culminating in his solo effort against Chelsea, came when Aubameyang was suspended for three games.
Martinelli bagged two goals and an assist during Auba’s suspension. While his return from injury will be very welcome, the headache remains for Arteta for how to integrate him and Aubameyang into the same forward line. Assuming Aubameyang moves into a more central role, Bukayo Saka could hold the key to unlock this partnership.
During Auba’s January suspension, Martinelli played on the left of the attack with Bukayo Saka overlapping. The pair struck up an instant chemistry, Saka crossed for Martinelli to score against Sheffield United, while Martinelli combined with the overlapping Saka for his excellent goal at Bournemouth a fortnight later.
For Martinelli’s goal against Sheffield United, Lacazette and Özil combine at the edge of the box with Saka and Martinelli already pushed on, whereas recently Arsenal’s attackers have had a tendency to stand in a straight line. At Bournemouth Arsenal had a much better balance to their attack with two players attacking the box in Martinelli and Nketiah, Saka and Pepe creating from the wings and Willock carrying the ball forwards from midfield.
With Kieran Tierney at the club it makes little sense for Saka to reprise his left wing-back role, but on the left side of a midfield three, Arteta could create a very virtuous triangle between Martinelli, Saka and Tierney. This sense of kinship is missing in the current setup, Willian, Lacazette and Aubameyang don’t really combine and nobody behind them, save for Saka, really supports them.
Nicolas Pepe is definitely a frustrating player, capable of incompetence and brilliance in equal measure. He does have end-product though and having invested the sort of money the club has in the Ivorian, it makes sense for Arteta to invest coaching time into ironing the wrinkles out of Pepe’s game. It certainly makes more sense than investing that kind of capacity into Willian (though I think him to be a better player than the one we have seen so far).
Anecdotally we are told that the manager is investing plenty of time and resource into coaching Pepe in much the same way he is said to have shepherded Raheem Sterling at Manchester City. Pepe has the value of being a creator and a goal scorer- for all of his failures of basic motor skills at times, he is meticulous in front of goal- few of his shots are wild.
Whether Nketiah can muscle his way into this equation in the long-term remains to be seen and there is no need to rush to judgement on that. Nketiah is very much a penalty box striker but he has to develop the other areas of his game to be seen as Arsenal’s first choice number nine as Aubameyang reaches his dotage (which is hopefully a couple of seasons away at least).
The current triumvirate of Lacazette, Willian and Aubameyang doesn’t really work and I don’t think there is much prospect of it ever working given the lack of fantasy and imagination behind it. Saka is already a promising first-team player and his existing chemistry with Martinelli gives cause for hope. At the moment there are lots of ifs and buts.
Can Arteta get Auba and Martinelli into the same forward line? Yes, IF he can coach Pepe into a leaner player. Crucially, there is something for Arteta to work with, a medium-term project that ought to excite and energise him- because it might just end up defining his reign.