In recent years, some of the Premier League’s most indestructible juggernauts have been brought into being by a simple quick fix.
For Antonio Conte, a crushing 3-0 defeat to Arsenal early on in his tenure as Chelsea boss gave him the idea of trying five at the back – the Blues didn’t drop points for their next 13 Premier League games, the joint-longest winning streak in league history.
For other managers, rescuing a team from the brink of disaster has been as simple as finding the perfect player – Jurgen Klopp knew that Virgil Van Dijk was the prototype of a dominant defender in the modern Premier League, while success at Chelsea for Frank Lampard may have been as simple as signing a goalkeeper who is capable of saving relatively simple shots on goal.
Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal side, and don’t laugh here, shares some similarities with a Klopp side in the early stages of its development – it’s a team so close to being what the manager wants them to be, but one which needs the catalyst of an ingenious tactical fix or an inspired signing to get there.
The problem is, neither of these two solutions are currently at the Spaniard’s disposal, and the result is a necessarily imperfect makeshift 11 that has gone badly wrong, to the point where the gaffer who won the FA Cup in his first ever season of management (and who won another trophy with his first game of his second season) has found himself under a little bit of unexpected pressure.
The story of Arteta’s early successes, and scrutiny which he finds himself facing in the wake of a 3-0 defeat to Aston Villa is inextricable from one man – Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the star forward whose tactical role has gone from talismanic to troublesome.
One of the most important things Arteta did as he began to stamp his mark on the Arsenal side was to play Aubameyang on the left of a front three. It had an immediate impact, with Aubameyang the joint second-top scorer in the league from the point Arteta’s first match to the end of the season.
It was from this position that the Gabonese striker enjoyed arguably his finest hour in an Arsenal shirt, scoring a brace against Chelsea to come back in the FA Cup final – with the second goal seeing him twist Kurt Zouma inside out with his direct running. Likewise, his opener against Liverpool in the Community Shield was a classic inside-forward’s goal – he picked up a beautiful floated pass from Bukayo Saka, drove inside from the left flank, and curled the ball towards the opposite corner.
This seemed like a perfectly imperfect solution to a quite considerable problem – the fact that Arteta (for reasons which might forever remain unclear) didn’t really fancy Mesut Ozil, and that without Ozil Arsenal completely lacked creativity in advanced positions.
Aubameyang is a player who is very good at shooting. We know this because he usually vastly outperforms his xG (Expected Goals) – in other words, he completely buries chances from positions that other players would struggle to test the goalkeeper in. Last season, he scored 22 league goals from 15.8 xG (FbRef), so essentially he scored six more goals than you might have expected from the positions he got in.
Arteta’s Arsenal have a very solid defensive foundation, but no one player who can either drive at defences or play a smart central pass between the lines, instead possessing plenty of tidy enough midfielders and wingers who are probably below the standard of the excellent wide forwards which populate other Premier League sides.
Luckily, Aubameyang was able to make the most of the minimal scoring chances that Arsenal generated by playing a little bit wider and deeper than he would prefer in order to come up with a moment of magic to back up a workmanlike defensive display from the Gunners.
Now, however, there is a bit of a problem – Aubameyang can barely even create openings for himself.
As can be seen above, Aubameyang’s rivals for the Golden Boot are able to generate better scoring chances for themselves in one game than he has across the whole season. Though Aubameyang was always a low xG forward relative to how many goals he scored, it becomes a slight issue when the goals dry up – and the Gabon international has just two in the league this season.
The solution which Arsenal fans have been screaming out for would see Aubameyang move into a central position – though he might score the odd screamer with a 5% chance of going in, he is skilled at generating scoring chances in the first place, and his poaching instincts, however haphazard, were unique in Arsenal’s lineup last season – think his scrappy overhead kick versus Olympiakos, or indeed, the sitter he missed in the same match.
But there’s also an issue with that – though Arsenal are abundant in right-sided wingers like Reiss Nelson, Nicolas Pepe and Willian, and have a quality left wing-back in the left-footed Bukayo Saka, they don’t have a natural fit for a left-sided inside forward in their ranks.
In essence, then, the Gunners are presented with a number of options (and for the sake of everyone’s sanity, let’s clarify that bringing Ozil back doesn’t appear to be one of them for now).
They could either stick it out with Auba on the left side of a 3-4-3 and proceed on the basis that his malaise is down to form alone. He’s a 31-year-old who has the pressure of a big new contract going for him, as well as the captaincy – maybe he just needs to adjust a little bit? The formation, which provides the defensive platform for Arsenal’s two wing-backs to get forward, is far from definitive but at its best provides plenty of stability.
Aubameyang could likewise be used centrally in the same formation, but the issue of creativity remains unsolved – if you manage an organised team who don’t need loads of the ball, you don’t need to be a particle physicist to realise that you more or less have to cut off Thomas Partey, Granit Xhaka, Dani Ceballos or Mohamed Elneny in midfield.
Faced with these issues, Arteta’s best bet is most likely to accept another imperfect solution, one which adopts a change of formation.
The team can’t rely solely on the form of an aging forward to get the ball in the back of the net – they need to address that organically to become a sustainable project. With this in mind, the logical conclusion seems to be a 4-2-3-1 with either Joe Willock or Ceballos as a number ten, and Saka as a left winger.
Are either of those players ideal number tens? Not quite. Does Saka currently possess the skills to play that far forward in a front three? Again, not quite. But not quite is better at the moment than not at all, and the hope would be that Aubameyang’s intelligent movement creates some much-needed space, opportunities and confidence for Arsenal’s inexperienced attackers (and Willian).
It should be quite clear that while this solution is unacceptable in the longer-term when it comes to personnel, it at least creates some kind of viable template for the Gunners going forward.
At this point, the failure to secure Houssem Aouar from Lyon in the summer transfer window becomes especially painful for Arsenal’s board. Someone adept at progressing the ball from midfield should be the minimum expectation in January, but the shopping spree should not stop there.
Arsenal also need a modern creative midfielder who is capable of playing wide – Philippe Coutinho might be more embedded in the Barca side now, Jack Grealish may be a little too inaccessible (having just torn Arteta’s side to pieces), and Christian Eriksen might be somewhat ‘Spursy’ for both parties’ tastes. But that mould of player is essential, both in terms of thinking beyond Ozil and purchasing the sort of wide-ish creator which abounds in the football of the 2020s.
Indeed, links to RB Salzburg’s sharpshooting Dominik Szoboszlai, who so far has a very promising CV for this exact role, are beginning to gather pace at a promising rate for Arsenal fans.
All in all, Arsenal committed to building around Aubameyang when they handed him leadership duties and lucrative three-year deal, and though so far the process has been painful, they clearly identified some value in taking advantage of the tail end of his prime.
Arteta may have created a serious puzzle for himself by going all in on the forward, but this small blip in his illustrious career aside, the evidence is that Aubameyang is a puzzle worth solving in order to unlock Arsenal’s attack.