|Player||2020-21 PL appearances||2020-21 PL goals|
|Pierre Emerick Aubameyang||19||5|
As the table above shows, Arsenal do not score enough goals. It is their biggest issue this season, per Scott Willis they have scored five fewer goals than they had after the same number of games this time last season, despite creating only 0.6 fewer XG. Converting periods of dominance into goals is, to my mind, the top priority on Mikel Arteta’s grievance tab.
Arsenal have gone from allowing 14.3 shots per match to 11.8
1.3 NP xG per Match to 1.1
8.3 Passes into box to 7.5
27.1 touches in the box to 21.5
The defense has gotten better
— Scott Willis (@oh_that_crab) February 9, 2021
The defending has improved under the coach, the back door is more difficult to break into even if Arsenal’s long-standing love affair with self-sabotage persists. What is promising is that the defensive improvement has maintained even as the Gunners have moved to a back four. A lot of this defensive improvement correlates with Arsenal keeping the ball better.
Broadly speaking, the introduction of Emile Smith-Rowe and Thomas Partey into a midfield three has made it easier for Arsenal to keep the ball away from their defensive third. The introduction of the aforementioned pair also means Arsenal get the ball into the attacking third much more easily. The partnership of Ceballos and Xhaka sits too deep and becomes too disconnected from the forwards.
That has changed now and Arsenal are playing higher up the pitch. The next problem for Arteta is to improve their penalty area presence. Too often it is only the left sided forward- be it Aubameyang, Pepe or Martinelli- waiting in the penalty area for the final pass. On Saturday night’s Match of the Day, Ian Wright highlighted this lack of penalty box presence.
This is, in my view, because the balance of the front four is too heavily weighted towards build-up and not enough towards finishing moves. In a 4231, you essentially have a front four, the three forwards connected by the number 10. Your number 10 is, obviously, one of your primary creators and you want one of your wide players to be a secondary creator.
Then you want two players primarily focused on finishing. Obviously there ought to be fluidity within those roles. At Villa Park, Smith-Rowe, Saka and Lacazette were focused on setting the play with only Pepe making runs into the area on a regular basis. As a centre-forward, Lacazette likes to move outside the area and riff with his teammates with quick combinations.
That is useful, of course and it can work wonderfully. The way Laca, Smith-Rowe and Saka combined for Saka’s goal at West Brom is an excellent illustration of that. However, more often than not, Lacazette’s desire to combine with ESR and Saka leaves the penalty area bare. You could argue that the presence of a proper number 10 in Smith-Rowe or Odegaard makes Lacazette’s linking role less valuable.
Playing Aubameyang centrally seems to be the most logical solution. Allow Smith-Rowe / Odegaard and Saka to provide the creative impetus and then Auba and one of Martinelli or Pepe can supplement that penalty box presence from the left. I don’t think this to be an absolutely silver bullet solution. Auba has always had a tendency to skirt around the edges of games at centre-forward.
The same is also true when he plays on the left where linking play or combining with teammates is arguably even more important. He is not incapable of linking play; but it is not his strength. I think many assume pace to be Aubameyang’s chief attribute but I don’t think it is- he has rarely played in teams whose centre-forwards have a meadow of green grass to skip gaily into.
His chief attribute is his ability to find space in the penalty area. Arsenal and Mikel Arteta made the decision to sign him to a big contract that takes him to his 34th birthday so it is absolutely incumbent on Arteta to find a way to use him and use him well for the next three seasons. I think that means learning to play with him upfront.
One can question the wisdom of awarding him the contract, by all means. But it is done now, it has been signed off and the coach needs to demonstrate that he has a plan to justify that decision. Asking Aubameyang to protect his full-back and sprint up and down the touchline until he is 34 is not the best way to look after his career or the team.
Leicester City have juiced the absolute maximum out of Jamie Vardy by restricting the space they have asked him to operate in. He no longer tears around the opponent’s half, he restricts his movement to the penalty box and Brendan Rodgers has built a creative and physical structure around him. Harvey Barnes, James Maddison and a pair of strong running full-backs (two of Timothy Castagne, James Justin or Ricardo Pereira) are Vardy’s legs.
34-year old Luis Suarez is shooting Atletico Madrid towards a first league title in seven years. Thomas Lemar, João Felix and Yannick Carrasco are doing the Uruguayan’s running for him nowadays, his focus is on gobbling up the chances they provide for him. Manchester United are doing something similar by surrounding Edinson Cavani with the legs and brains of Bruno Fernandes, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood.
Put simply, Mikel Arteta has to conceive of something similar now- that is the decision he and the club have made in awarding Aubameyang a three-year contract. Alexandre Lacazette has one year left on his deal this summer and Arsenal simply cannot put more resource into another ageing attacker. The fact that talks have not been initiated with the Frenchman suggest they think so too.
It makes sense to start that process now. Moving Aubameyang to the centre opens up a spot on the flanks so that Gabriel Martinelli and, presuming he is not on the summer transfer list, Nicolas Pepe can develop into key cogs of the Arsenal attack. The team needs greater penalty area presence now and the club needs to look after the attackers it has decided to invest in.
I don’t pretend that moving Aubameyang upfront is an instant salve to Arsenal’s goal scoring issue- his form has not been pristine this season even if he has been a victim of some structural issues. It might take a few games for Arsenal to acclimatise to a low-touch centre-forward but other clubs have managed to make strikers of a similar age and vintage to Auba work. Arsenal must now do the same.