Arsenal were just three minutes away from an arguably season-ending defeat at the hands of Benfica in the Europa League Round of 32 last Thursday. However, a late rally and a winner from Captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang saved Arsenal’s blushes and their season as Mikel Arteta was left with a selection dilemma at Arsenal.
Arteta and Arsenal followed up their dramatic late win in Athens with a win at the King Power. Arsenal went into the game as the underdogs. The Spaniard’s team selection raised a number of eyebrows, having made six changes to the team. Regardless, a rotated side came out 3-1 winners in a comfortable away performance. Mikel Arteta now has some big decisions to make regarding his Arsenal selection.
Tide Turning for Mikel Arteta and Arsenal?
Arsenal and Arteta Still Have Progress to Make
Arsenal seem to have turned a corner since the start of the year. The North London side look more competitive. Despite their possibly more reserved style, there appears to be more steel and solidarity in the Arteta Arsenal team. Systematically, they look much more competent.
What does seem clear, following the trend in team selections, is that the Europa League is the priority for Mikel Arteta. Finishing in the top four appears extremely unrealistic, and even the Europa League spots are viciously competitive this year. As a result, the Europa League, with its prize of Champions League football, is at the top of Arteta’s radar.
This is going to lead to continued rotation, due to the toll of the Europa League’s Thursday-Sunday commitments. Yet, if the Leicester performance is anything to go by, it appears Arteta is getting more out of his ‘fringe’ players at Arsenal. They are capable of competing even with a rotated side. The form of Nicolas Pepe and Willian supports these claims.
It appears he is relatively set on a midfield pivot of Granit Xhaka and Thomas Partey as his first choice pairing if both are fit and available. The back four also appears to be relatively settled. Kieran Tierney as a result of his impressive form and being the only conventional left-back in the squad means he is guaranteed a place for all games.
A centre-back pairing of Gabriel and David Luiz was deployed in both legs of the Benfica tie. Cedric Soares and Hector Bellerin appear to both be capable of playing in this system. They also provide one another with healthy competition.
Teenage sensation and Hale End graduate Bukayo Saka is and will remain a key member of Arteta’s plans. He has been a revelation and will only get better. Chipping in with vital goals and assists all year, Saka is one of the few shining lights of what has been a dull season so far at the Emirates.
Arteta has clearly committed to the 4-2-3-1 formation since the emergence of Emile Smith Rowe and the January acquisition of Martin Odegaard. It means he can consistently deploy this system without fear of burn out or lack of options.
With this in mind, we come to the biggest of Arteta’s decisions going into the final third of the season. Who should he play as his main central striker?
Mikel Arteta Has Arsenal Decision to Make Regarding Striking Role
Captain and talisman Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was influential in his side’s comeback against Benfica last week. He scored the Gunner’s opener and the winner in a dramatic night for his team. As well as holding the armband, does it make the Gabon international undroppable? Especially in the bigger games?
Last season we saw Aubameyang at his best. Despite a slow start to the season, and absence as a result of family issues, he is slowly rekindling his form. He was outstanding in the Gunner’s FA Cup run last season and scored two goals in both the semi-final and final.
However, with a change of system, there appears to be a reluctance now to play Aubameyang from out on the left. This means he is very rarely seen in the same side as his strike partner Alexandre Lacazette.
This reluctancy stems as a result of a number of factors. Aubameyang has a tendency to drift in games, especially when playing out wide. He is not known for his dribbling and is not as effective one on one compared to your conventional wingers or inside forwards.
There is an argument to suggest that he is also losing a bit of his pace. Regardless, he is wasted out wide. It’s clear you get the best out of him when he is deployed through the middle. Aubameyang experienced a dip in form as a result of playing on the wing, and unfortunately, Arsenal predictably struggled to find goals as Arteta and his Arsenal selection failed.
As well as this, Arsenal have a number of arguably better options for the left-sided attacking positions. With Kieran Tierney’s influence down that wing, it opens the door for another creative midfielder such as Smith Rowe. Alternatively, the likes of Nicolas Pepe, Willian and even Gabriel Martinelli have performed well there too for Arsenal, giving Arteta another option when considering selection.
Arteta knows he will not be utilising his Arsenal squad in the best way if he is forced to shoe-horn Aubameyang in on the wing. Yet, only one man can play through the middle. With both Lacazette and Aubameyang in the squad – who will he rely on to be the main striker in the ‘bigger’ games?
A Shout for Lacazette?
Arteta can’t leave Aubameyang out, can he?
Arsenal looked fine without him on Sunday. Alexandre Lacazette led from the front at the King Power as captain. The Frenchman’s all-round performance was excellent. He topped off his performance with a goal from the penalty spot to give the Gunner’s the lead. Overall, he made a strong case to be in Arteta’s best team- giving the Spaniard a selection dilemma at Arsenal.
Lacazette seems the perfect fit in the system against teams with a low block. He is capable of impacting the overall game more than Aubameyang. This is done through his linkup play and capability of bringing in other players.
For example, he seems to link up better with the No. 10, whoever it may be. As well as this, his tendency to drop deep and drag central defenders with him opens up spaces further up the pitch for inside forwards and creative midfielders to roam and exploit.
Evidence of this can be seen if you examine Arsenal’s performance at St. Mary’s in January. Lacazette led the line and throughout dropped into an almost false nine role. The Gunner’s ran out 3-1 winners and both wingers on the night, Nicolas Pepe and Bukayo Saka, got on the score sheet as a result of his expert positioning. Lacazette himself rounded up the scoring.
However, Lacazette is nowhere near as prolific as his Gabonese counterpart. Even despite Aubameyang’s ‘poor form’ and extended run out of the team – he is still the Gunner’s top goalscorer this season. He has 13 goals in all competitions so far.
Also, despite being able to conduct the press well, Lacazette lacks the explosive speed that makes Aubameyang stand out. This means Lacazette is also not as effective as Aubameyang against high lines or pressing teams high up the pitch.
Aubameyang More Prolific
As bizarre as it sounds, the con of having Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the team is that he does very little but score goals. His overall play is very limited and he struggles with his back to goal.
Alexandre Lacazette has proved on many occasions that he provides more as an overall player.
Unfortunately for Lacazette, he does not have the movement or instincts that Aubameyang has to find himself on the scoresheet so much. It is without doubt, that Arsenal are clearly a bigger threat with Aubameyang on the pitch. However, Arsenal look a lot more balanced without him in the team.
Of course, certain games and opponents will suit different players. For example, Aubameyang works well in big spaces and gets in behind well against high lines.
What will work in Aubameyang’s favour is his tendency to show up in the big games. Last week was just another example of him stepping up to the occasion. Similar to how he did in the FA Cup last year. Lacazette is nowhere near as reliable a goalscorer. This is why, despite his superior link-up play, he will likely be the second choice for Arteta in the big knockout games for Arsenal. When the game is stretched, Aubameyang is your man.
Responsibility Falls on Aubameyang
Lacazette has failed in his time at Arsenal to find the consistency that would make him a world-class centre forward. He is also a number of the names on the list likely to leave Arsenal in the summer as Arteta continues his rebuild. At 30 years old, despite his uplift in form, it is unlikely to earn him a new contract.
The Frenchman will have a year left on his current deal come July. On the other hand, having only just signed a new deal, Aubameyang has committed his future to Arsenal. He is someone they will turn to and rely on for the rest of the campaign.
There is, however, a lot Lacazette can provide for the Gunners. Unlike under Unai Emery, we are unlikely to see the two of them paired as a front two, at least from the start of games. But, the Frenchman will likely be selected in the Premier League games for Arsenal under Arteta. He will have a lot to say in terms of where the Gunners end up this season.
To make up for Aubameyang’s lack of creative influence, Arteta has sacrificed a place on the left wing to accommodate another creative midfielder in order to fill the void. Both Smith Rowe and Odegaard have played together in the last round of the Europa League. Arsenal can afford to do this as a result of the attacking prevalence of Kieran Tierney. The Scotsman is vitally important on both ends.
With Arsenal likely to dominate the ball against Olympiacos in the Round of 16, it is likely Arteta will persevere with the selection of two attacking midfielders. They roam the pockets between midfield and defence to provide Aubameyang with the gaps to operate through the middle. This is different to Lacazette who can do both, just not as prolifically.
Any hopes of winning the Europa League appear to rest on Aubameyang’s shoulders. Though, the uplift in form of Lacazette and other fringe players will give Arteta a selection headache he has not had for large parts of this season at Arsenal. This is something, despite the big calls he’ll have to make, he will certainly be grateful for.