If you’re an Arsenal fan, or any other English football fan for that matter, you’ve probably seen vague explanations of how fitting Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette into the same lineup is going to prove an impossible task for the new Arsenal manager. “They’ll be too open defensively”, “lol what a fifa lineup”, and “they can’t just play 4-4-fackin-2 can they?” have been some of my personal favourites. Thus far I’ve yet to see an actual explanation as to why they wouldn’t work together, and after seeing them combine during the West Ham game, you wouldn’t be faulted for thinking there isn’t a problem. The only problem is…there is a problem. Bear with me while I try to explain through crudely created pictures why the problem isn’t just “defence”, but width.
Arsenal on paper
This is how Arsenal line up with the strongest squad available. It’s a little crude, but the arrows represent generally where a player will be looking to run into for most of the match, depending on the circumstance, and we’ll get into specific scenarios later. It’s essentially a 4-3-3, with the only static players usually being Lacazette, Elneny, Koscielny, Mustafi, and of course, Cech.
This is undoubtedly an image you’ve seen over a hundred times if you’ve watched Arsenal regularly throughout the season. It’s a sort of semi-circle in which the Arsenal forwards will pass the ball around aimlessely for 30-60 seconds before attempting a forced through ball into the box for Aubameyang, Lacazette, or Ramsey to run onto. On a good day Mesut Ozil will randomly pinpoint a perfect ball into the box to create a chance, but that hasn’t been a reliable method of scoring goals this season.
Hector Bellerin or Nacho Monreal may look to overlap and head toward the opposition byline if we’re feeling particularly frisky. This creates some width and stretched the defence, leaving potential gaps in the middle. It offers a chance to cross, or push into the box. Unfortunately as we’ve seen, Bellerin isn’t the best crosser of the ball, and Nacho Monreal doesn’t possess the burst of pace often needed to take on his man. It’s another unreliable way of creating good chances, but it does pay off from time to time. It’s not the attacking implications of this move that causes issues, but the shape of the entire team if we lose possession and have to suddenly defend a counter attack.
Defending the break
In this image, the problem becomes quite clear. There isn’t an opposition in the image itself, but you will have seen the scenario regardless. 3 or 4 opposition players are hurtling towards our goal after intercepting a pass or cutting out a cross. Bellerin and Monreal, after pushing high up the pitch in attack, are now scrambling back to assist Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi, who are in danger of being overrun. Bellerin can actually pull this off fairly often with the pace that he has, but Monreal absolutely cannot (neither can Kolasinac for that matter, and forget about Calum Chambers on the right).
Mohammed Elneny will often drop inbetween Koscielny and Mustafi to quick switch into a back three in this situation to try and provide the cover, but it isn’t always enough. Often we’ll see Mustafi push out and directly challenge the oncoming attackers. This is partly why he looks such an inconsistent player. Sometimes he makes the block and looks a hero, other times he’s made to look a fool and Koscielny is left completely in the lurch.
This is the exact same situation as the last one, but with Jack Wilshere in the midfield instead of Elneny. Granit Xhaka does not occupy the same role as Elneny. He does not drop into the centre backs, and leaves us even more open. Whether this is his fault or the system, it’s why Xhaka has been viewed as a liability defensively. Along with his outrageous lapses in concentration. This isn’t exactly vital to the point I’m making, but rather a clear explanation as to why we need a dedicated DM. And why the Xhaka-Wilshere-Ramsey combination is very dangerous.
As many have suggested, with Aubameyang in the lineup, it may already be time for Lacazette to move on. I’m not pushing this opinion, but rather explaining why it actually could be the best option for the team. Here we see Arsenal attacking, but instead of Aubameyang and Ozil occupying the wide spaces, we have 2 theoretical dedicated wingers instead. Let’s call them Wiyad Wahrez and Womas Wemar. And before you say it, I’m aware that there is no Mesut Ozil here. God knows where he would fit into this lineup, but I’m sure we could shoe-horn him in somewhere.
Rather than Bellerin and Monreal providing the width for the attack, we now have Wahrez and Wemar making runs towards the byline, or the back post (depending on which flank the ball is on). Aubameyang acts as our “lone” striker and lurks inside the box. While Aaron Ramsey and perhaps even Granit Xhaka lurk on the edges and make runs into the area to offer more options for the wingers. Aubameyang can now play in his preferred position as a poacher, while Ramsey can continue making the late runs into the area that he loves to do. On paper it should operate faily well in attack. But surprisingly the addition of attacking wingers benefits us more defensively than offensively.
With the wingers, Bellerin and Monreal are no longer needed to push so far up. We no longer need them to stretch the defense to create gaps. They can sit slightly further back in attack, and if the counter-attack comes through, the pair won’t be drastically out of position. With the addition of a DM (or Elneny) we actually create a crude “back 5” in this scenario. One man actually can come out and challenge the ball carrier, without leaving us completely open at the back. Not only that, but if the opportunity comes to win the ball back and “counter the counter” so to speak, we still retain the ability to move the ball forwards to Xhaka, Ramsey, or either winger to drive forward.
The only downside of this is the lack of creativity and the lack of Mesut Ozil. With only Granit Xhaka the only dedicated creative player. I’d be inclined to include Ozil on the right hand side. As I believe Bellerin has the stamina and the pace to cover for himself in the event that he needs to get forward to provide width. But it’s all theoretical anyway.
it’s certainly not an easy problem to solve. On the one hand you have Aubameyang and Lacazette partnering up in attack and undoubtedly scoring a boatload of goals, but the team being left open at the back. On the other hand you have (theoretically) an attack led by Aubameyang, perhaps a more flexible offense, a slightly more stable defence, but you lose Lacazette.
Either way, a new DM must be the priority in the Summer. Especially if the decision is to keep the Aubameyang/lacazette partnership, but even if we move away from it. One could argue that with better Centre-Backs AND a new DM, we might actually be able to pull it off. Maybe even with a new coach and better defensive training the current bunch could do it. These are all questions for the man who will be paid £10M a year to answer them. Undoubtedly each coach has their own theory on how to fix Arsenal. The decision Ivan Gazidis must make on Wenger’s successor will certainly determine the fate of a fair few players.