Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Laca-yin and Aubame-yang

When Pierre Emerick Aubameyang arrived at Arsenal in January 2018, he instantly struck up a friendship with Alex Lacazette. It was a friendship that surprised many of us considering that Aubameyang had essentially been bought to replace Lacazette- or so we thought. At the time of Auba’s arrival, Lacazette was enduring a goal drought and soon after it was discovered that he required knee surgery.

Wenger had clearly been reluctant to sign Lacazette, who was available on the market for at least two summers before he eventually arrived. Having failed in the pursuits of Suarez and Benzema and experimented with Alexis Sanchez as a centre-forward, Arsene felt he couldn’t wait any longer to try and move the club on from having Olivier Giroud as their marksman.

The irony here, of course, is that Lacazette’s goal scoring output is lower than Giroud’s. His goal totals in an Arsenal shirt (all competitions) stand at 17, 19, 12 and he currently sits on 15 goals for the season. In Giroud’s five full seasons at Arsenal he managed 17, 22, 19, 24 and 16.

Both are very different types of player, clearly and Wenger probably saw Lacazette is a more favourable style of striker for his Arsenal team. Broadly, both are facilitators or foils, not really the striking centrepiece of a team that challenges to win the game’s big prizes. Aubameyang sits far more in the category of a player you can hang your hat on to score 25-30 goals a season.

Aubameyang didn’t replace Lacazette, as many of us suspected, but instead ended up buttressing him. Chiselled into a slightly awkward left-wing role, Auba was seen as an elite enough goal scorer to play slightly out of position without unduly impacting his goal tally, while Lacazette could play in his favoured role and facilitate Arsenal’s attacks.

It’s always been a slightly awkward on-pitch relationship, even if off the field they remain BFFs. The players’ respective contract situations have impacted this dynamic further. After pretty much single handedly winning Arsenal the FA Cup, Aubameyang was handed a three-year contract on a sizeable salary. Lacazette currently has a year to run on his deal and turns 30 in May.

Essentially, Arsenal have backed their horse already. With 32-year old Willian joining on a large contract, the club just cannot countenance pouring more resource into an attacker on the wrong side of the age curve. Asking Aubameyang to chase Trent Alexander-Arnold up and down the touchline is not the way to look after his career given that he will be on around £300,000 a week come his 34th birthday.

Arsenal have more of a responsibility to look after Aubameyang’s legs and his career than they do Lacazette. The sagacity of that decision can be debated but it can’t be reversed, that is the decision that the club has already made- whether they did so with a clear head is open to conjecture.

With the emergence of Emile Smith Rowe and the loan signing of Martin Odegaard, Arsenal seriously upped their creative potential in the New Year (which is to say that they raised it from somewhere close to zero). Arteta finally relented and played Aubameyang through the middle and, hey presto, his previously impoverished form improved and he was better able to utilise his elite ability to find space in the penalty area and find goal scoring chances.

All the while, a kind of online culture war has emerged between camp Lacazette and team Aubameyang. In the social media era, it isn’t unusual for these kind of cliques to form among fans as we become more protective of our own opinions than ever. We experienced much the same online stand-off between “Ramsey fans” and Wilshere fans” a few years back. In this “LACA v AUBA” debate, I am not without guilt.

It is quite understandable that this divide has emerged because Arteta does essentially have a choice between two intriguing binaries. Lacazette does link play nicely when he drops deep, he is better at that aspect of centre-forward play than Aubamayeng. As ever, in online discourse, exaggeration ensues.

Aubameyang can link play well enough, despite the protestations of many. However, Aubameyang is undoubtedly superior at finding space in the penalty area and taking shots at goal. Aubameyang is superior to most strikers on the planet in that respect. Again, Lacazette’s deficiencies in this area have also been hyperbolised- he has scored more goals this season than Auba after all.

In a nutshell, Lacazette’s game is built on combinations, he likes to connect. Aubameyang’s is built on finding space and that requires that you disconnect because space opens up away from the ball. Often strikers like Aubameyang are miscast as peripheral or, worse, disinterested. I disagree with that, I just think his work takes place away from the ball. Space doesn’t just open up for you to run into, you have to work to create and find it. A striker like that makes a hundred unfruitful shuttle runs before they get their reward.

Regardless of the white noise of online chatter, Arteta’s role is to try to get the best out of whichever striker he picks. Because they are so different, it is not so much a case of which individual is superior but how you build the team to get the best out of their attributes. They are entirely different and their attacking partners need to be configured differently.

Lacazette endured a miserable evening against Slavia Praha last week in an attack featuring Willian. The Brazilian does have his qualities (though he has scarcely shown them in an Arsenal shirt) but none of them complement Lacazette’s qualities. The mixture of Willian and Lacazette is not penetrative enough and carries too little penalty box threat.

Likewise, the attack against Liverpool was poorly configured with Aubameyang, Lacazette and Pepe starting together. That trio does not have the technical properties to retain the ball and build pressure. Auba looked back to his best played through the middle with mobile creators around him to ferry the ball into the area.

Lacazette enjoyed an excellent performance against Sheffield United, playing alongside two aggressive wide players in Pepe and Martinelli, who like to load the penalty area and take shots. It was Martinelli following in when Pepe’s second half shot was palmed away by Aaron Ramsdale. Had Auba been playing, he undoubtedly would have swallowed up that rebound as well. Willian or Smith Rowe probably wouldn’t have.

Crucially, at Bramall Lane, Arteta also positioned Dani Ceballos close to Lacazette. Laca likes to combine with one touch passes and so does Ceballos. Played closer together, the pair could play wall passes all evening while Martinelli focused on raiding the penalty area. Lacazette enjoyed a good relationship with Mesut Ozil for much the same reason.

When it comes to penalty box presence, Lacazette is more garnish than main dish. Left alone, he can’t carve out a nook or cranny in a crowded area like Aubameyang can. He prefers to drift around the penalty spot looking for pull-backs and for that to be effective, he needs support runners (so, not Willian). Auba, on the other hand, can find those positions for fun if there are enough creators around him.

Essentially, Auba is much more in the Mane, Salah and Cavani bracket of killing teams by volume. He misses lots of good chances but so do most elite strikers; the skill is not being perturbed by missing and taking up those goal scoring spaces again and again. Feed him and he will score.

Lacazette is a facilitator and that means he needs players to help him facilitate and, crucially, players that can fill the penalty area to support him. Arsenal have already made their choice, fiscally speaking and should prioritise Aubameyang through the centre as a result, however, whoever Arteta picks to play at centre-forward, it is important that he selects the right partners for them to thrive.

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