Monday, January 24, 2022

When a door closes…a window opens

I don’t have much of a view on the recent punishment meted out to Pierre Emerick Aubameyang by Mikel Arteta. I mean, I think a 32-year-old man really ought to have a handle on basic timekeeping and ‘how to book a flight on the correct date’ by now, even if I know the reality of elite football can insulate its players from acquiring basic common sense.

Whether being stripped of the captaincy is the right decision is based on too many factors where my knowledge is lacking. Firstly, I don’t have the inside track on the goings on at London Colney so I don’t have a full picture of the situation. It’s a little bit like trying to gauge a room by peering through the keyhole.

Secondly, I have managed people during my professional career and, put simply, I was crap at it- especially when it comes to inspiring people. It’s just not in my nature at all, I much prefer working alone and the life of a hermetical writer suits me far, far better. Even if I had chapter and verse on the situation, I am the last person I would ask for an opinion on the appropriate measures to deal with it.

It would be a little bit like taking information on vaccines from Facebook memes. I am far more interested in what the flashpoint between coach and (former) captain means for the team. I hope that Aubameyang can get his head around this public dressing down and continue to contribute, because he is a damn fine player when he does.

If he can’t, he can’t and I am only really interested in what that means for those stepping into his breach. During the “Özil saga” I found myself accused of carrying a rabid agenda against him and of being far too quick to defend him by the extremists on both ends of that spectrum- which always amused me because my attitude to that situation is much the same as this one, I largely don’t really care beyond what it means for the team.

I have written about the attack under Mikel Arteta so many times over the last 12 months because, to me, it is by far the most fascinating area of the team. It is also the most mysterious (and probably the area that has been most prone to dysfunction). As I wrote last month, the attack is the one area of the team now that is not really Arteta’s (or Edu’s).

They both fired a massive blank with the “capture” of Willian (and given the excess weight he was carrying during the final days of his Arsenal ‘career’ he would be rather easy to ‘capture’) and probably with the extension of Aubameyang’s contract in 2020. As a result of that decision and expensively acquired attackers that Arteta inherited, like Lacazette and Pepe, he has been in the process of making do and mend until he can buy who he really wants for those positions.

The twin emergences of Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka have gone some way to smoothing Arsenal’s final third entry; while Martin Odegaard is beginning to show some of the flourishes that persuaded Arteta and Edu to case his signature on a permanent basis in the summer.

Arsenal are beginning to source more goals from their attacking midfielders, with Odegaard and Smith Rowe hitting good spells of scoring form. A lot of this, I think, is because Arsenal like moves that end in cut-backs towards the penalty spot or edge of the area, with the first line of attack running towards the opposition goalkeeper and taking defenders with them.

This is the area that Lacazette prefers to take up too, just look at his goal against Southampton for example. I think this partially explains Aubameyang’s recent drought, he prefers deliveries towards the back post or into the six-yard area and that’s not really what Arsenal are doing currently. In many ways, Auba’s latest indiscretion might do Arsenal a favour if it forces them to bring forward the future for their attack.

Because let’s not forget that, while there has been no captaincy to strip him of or any specific disciplinary faux pas, Nicolas Pepe is out in the cold (though as an owner of an Arsenal bench jacket, I can tell you they are toasty enough to fight off the winter temperatures). With Auba and Pepe currently confined to the naughty step, maybe different naughty steps, for different reasons, Gabriel Martinelli has been able to carve out a niche.

The biggest obstacle for the Brazilian has always been the presence of Pepe and Aubameyang. Three attackers focused on end-product and not as fussed about build-up is too many. Too many shot monsters spoil the broth. At this moment in time, neither player is a factor and the Brazilian looks far more at home in the team.

Arteta spoke about improvements in the rhythm of Martinelli’s game after his match winning performance against West Ham. “He’s able to put some gears into his play. Sometimes he’s still doing everything at 100 miles per hour but the energy and quality he shows at times is top.” Of course, this is also easier to do when you are starting games rather than desperately trying to impress through short cameos from the bench.

His improved rhythm is probably a symptom of increased opportunity. I still just see a player that would hurdle his own mother to get a shot on goal or a cross into a dangerous area. Without Aubameyang and Pepe, this sort of player makes a lot more sense and it also, potentially, ekes far more from Lacazette as a facilitator.

The Frenchman’s desire to come to the ball and link play can leave the box pretty vacant but with Martinelli raiding the area in his absence, that is less of a concern, as beautifully illustrated by Martinelli’s goal on Wednesday evening. Of course, you probably need one more runner from deep to really have sufficient penalty box presence and Smith Rowe seems to be taking that challenge very personally this season, which has been great to see.

I have long been an advocate of giving Martinelli minutes over Pepe but the door being shut on Aubameyang too (for now) has opened a window for Martinelli and perhaps given us a glimpse of what this attack might look like in 12-18 months’ time. I imagine the next striker will be more towards the Lacazette mould than Aubamayeng (though hopefully with a few more tools in the toolbox compared to the Frenchman).

I am wary about proclaiming the death of the old and the birth of the new based on one game. I would rather have Aubameyang than not, even scoring at the reduced rate that he has been over the last year and a half, you can’t just handwave that number of goals, or indeed his penalty box prowess.

But if this regrettable situation speeds up Martinelli’s evolution then, at the very least, there will be a significant upside to the whole affair. With AFCON to come in January, so long as Martinelli stays fit (*crosses fingers*) he will have a good opportunity to build on this momentum too.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto– Or like my page on Facebook

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