Players with high end-product tend to unbalance a team tactically, this is a broad truism that all football coaches must grapple with. Even the best attackers in history require accommodation- Messi and Ronaldo need structures around them that allow them to remain in advanced positions at all times.
The principal task of any PSG coach is to devise a team that allows Neymar and Kylian Mbappe to remain in advanced positions. The calculation that coaches must arrive at when coaching talented attackers is whether their level of end-product justifies the extent to which their presence impact the tactical foundations of the team.
This mathematical dilemma has come to define the second half of Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal reign to date. The defence has marginally improved under his stewardship with his increased emphasis on structure- as well as a decent pair of central defensive signings in Gabriel and Pablo Mari (who offer an improvement on the departing pair of Sokratis and Shkodran Mustafi).
Arsenal scored 55 Premier League goals in 2020-21- the ninth highest total in the division. How to get more goals into this team is an urgent priority for the coach. When one considers that last season’s top goalscorer Alex Lacazette is likely to leave this summer, the question becomes more striking.
There is some potential organic improvement, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and Gabriel Martinelli to beat their season totals for 2020-21, fitness permitting. In a more forgiving, creative setup and without some of the health distractions he endured during this campaign, we ought to expect Pierre Emerick Aubameyang to enjoy a better season in front of goal next time around.
The Gunners are also in the market for another number 10 and whether that be Martin Odegaard or A.N. Other, they should be expected to chip in too. If Joe Willock returns to the club (and, on a related note, if Arteta feels he has the ingredients for more of a 433 formation) then there could be some more league goals to mine there. Needless to say; I am not including Willian in this equation because I think he and Arsenal share a mutual willingness to end their unhappy marriage.
I would be cautious about expecting Folarin Balogun to add a significant haul in the Premier League at this stage. However, you feel the key to Arsenal adding goals to their game could well be Nicolas Pepe. The Ivorian isn’t quite as good as Aubameyang at finding chances- but he is, in my view, the club’s best finisher when presented with an opportunity.
Pepe scored eight goals in 42 appearances in his debut season, a little less than one goal every five games. He scored 16 in 47 in 2020-21- just more than one in three. Throw in five assists this season and eight assists in 2019-20 and that is a high end-product player. Nico has developed a lot in terms of his all-round game and his defensive contribution. I also think Arsenal have gotten better at working the ball into goal scoring positions for him.
Put simply, Arsenal are not in a position to turn their noses up at what he offers in terms of goals and assists. The issue for Arteta is that, on current metrics, the four most likely players to score are Martinelli, Pepe, Aubameyang and Willock (assuming Lacazette leaves) and you can’t really accommodate all four of those players into the same team.
A frontline of Pepe, Aubameyang and Martinelli does not have the technical security to create chances, even if it has three players capable of finishing them. Ideally, you probably need two of Saka, Smith Rowe or Odegaard / mystery man to balance out the front four- which is why it is important for Smith Rowe and Saka to add more goals next season (and I think there are good signs that they can).
We’re told that Arteta was a crucial element in the improvement of Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane at Manchester City and Pepe is a really interesting project for Mikel. He notably improved towards the end of this season but there again, he notably improved towards the end of his debut season before Willian was signed to play in his position.
Whether Pepe improved as a result of that act of tough love or whether his trajectory was simply delayed by it is open to question. I certainly don’t think Arsenal signed Willian to a large three-year contract just to light the fire under Nicolas Pepe. Whatever the route, we have arrived at the destination now that has Pepe firmly ahead of Willian for the right-wing berth.
In fairness, I think I might be ahead of Willian for a starting spot. My suspicion is that, deep down, Arteta would still prefer a player who gives him Pepe’s end-product and the conformity to structure that the coach craves. The problem is that, even if that player exists, he isn’t in Arsenal’s price bracket.
Working with slightly misshapen talents is very much the role of the Arsenal manager. How does he make up for Aubameyang’s lack of overall contribution but ensure he gets plenty of service in the penalty area? If Auba gave you structure and his superhuman ability to sniff out chances, he wouldn’t be at Arsenal.
How does Arteta amend for Pepe’s slightly wobbly overall play so that he can keep those delicious goals and assists? Personally, I would be open to seeing Arsenal move to more of a 433 shape with either Smith Rowe as more of an advanced eight- with this system, Arteta could keep Willock as a rotation or bench option.
If you want to score more goals, the amount of goals you can bring off the bench is an important consideration. Dominant teams have players that a coach can introduce and I would see Martinelli in that role next season, as well as a potential rotation option with Pepe and Aubameyang.
I will maintain to my dying day that Arsene Wenger was great at substitutions because he didn’t overcomplicate them. He understood the impact of game state when the clock was ticking and “throw on all of the strikers and just put someone random at full-back” works more often than not.
Attack makes the most sense by volume, if you keep making attacking changes of that ilk, it will pay off more often than not and goals from the bench were always a big feature of Wenger’s best teams. They have not been a feature of Arteta’s Arsenal yet due to the emphasis on structure and a reluctance to tinker with it during matches.
Keeping teams under pressure and creating more chances has to be the number one priority for next season. In 2020-21, Eddie Nketiah was fifth in Arsenal’s list of top scorers with two goals. Only eight players managed to score more than once and the three players that reached double figures were at the low end of “double figures.” This has to improve significantly next season. Arteta has some of the tools to make it happen, how he deploys them is not straightforward but fascinating nonetheless.
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