Football Features

Four Vlahovic alternatives Arsenal should target

By Ben Green

Published: 8:03, 7 January 2022

The stars are aligning for fourth-place Arsenal, but sooner or later one problem position must be addressed.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is currently frozen out for disciplinary reasons and linked to Newcastle United, Alexandre Lacazette’s contract expires in less than six months and Eddie Nketiah is seemingly unfancied by head coach Mikel Arteta.

So signing a striker would make sense, either this month or next summer. And on Wednesday night, Arsenal Twitter was partially responsible for the fact Dusan Vlahovic’s name was trending.

The triggering incident was news that Fiorentina will sign Krystof Piatek. Next came briefings from I Viola that this move has nothing to do with the future of their 21-year-old goal machine, but Arsenal supporters, as they say in Italy, saw the white smoke.

Excluding anyone over the age of 23, only Kylian Mbappe (54) and Erling Haaland (53) have outscored Vlahovic across Europe’s top five leagues since 2019/20. He is also Serie A’s reigning ‘Best Young Player’, being likened to goalscoring legend Christian Vieri and reportedly valued at nearly £70million.

But what if Arsenal and Vlahovic aren’t actually a good fit? It was claimed by Italian transfer news outlet Di Marzio that the player may choose to join a more competitive project. As for Arsenal, there may be options better suited to both the tactical system underpinning their recent successes, and their budget.

Here are four of them.

Jonathan David (Lille)

Lille has been a talent factory in recent years. Arsenal even already shopped there not too long ago, though few Gooners would call Nicolas Pepe’s £72m signing in 2019 a good advertisement for the Stade Pierre-Mauroy.

But others may point to Gabriel, who has looked assured this season barring his self-destruct at the weekend against Manchester City, where even Pep Guardiola admitted, “Arsenal were better.”

Jonathan David is a name many will be familiar with by now. The 21-year-old has a burgeoning reputation and a growing CV that has made Europe’s richest clubs sit up and take notice. With 12 goals already in Ligue 1 this season, the Canada international is the division’s current top goalscorer.

He comes with European pedigree, too, having netted in three successive Champions League games this season. David actually became the first Lille player to do so, while he also bagged the award for most ‘weak-footed’ goals of any player in 2021 across Europe’s top five leagues by finding the net nine times with his left peg.

If those numbers don’t set pulses racing, then how about his international record? David’s return of 18 goals in just 24 caps already puts a player yet to turn 22 just four behind the all-time top-scorer for the Canada men’s national team, Cyle Larin.

He’s simply a forward who knows the back of the net like Arteta knows a good barber.

Alexander Isak (Real Sociedad)

Borussia Dortmund don’t get much wrong when it comes to transfers. However, prematurely selling Alexander Isak is a rare blot on an otherwise world-class recruitment system. Heralded as the next Zlatan Ibrahimovic after moving to BVB in 2017, the Swedish forward was unable to make headway in the Ruhr district.

He ultimately upped sticks for Real Sociedad in 2019 and hasn’t looked back since. Now 22, Isak is one of the most-coveted forwards in Europe and it doesn’t take a genius to see why. To revisit the earlier goalscoring stat on U23 players in Europe’s top five leagues, only Haaland (48), Mbappe (46) and Vlahovic (31) have scored more non-penalty league goals than Isak (29) since 2019/20.

On top of that, Sweden’s youngest-ever goalscorer boasts a collector’s item Eredivisie record, one that surpasses Zlatan and even O Fenomeno. During a loan spell at Willem II in 2018/19, Isak became the first foreign player to score 12 goals in their opening 12 Eredivisie games; Ronaldo only managed nine for PSV in 1994/95 while Zlatan bagged five for Ajax in 2001/02.

His 6ft3in frame somewhat belies his manipulation of the ball. Isak is as powerful in motion as he is delicate in control. With speed, an eye for goal and a playmaker’s instinct — he created more chances (six) and provided more assists (two) than any other Sweden player at Euro 2020 — Isak looks the full package.

Ollie Watkins (Aston Villa)

Arsenal’s recent spell of good form has coincided with Aubameyang’s absence from Arteta’s side as well as Lacazette’s emergence as a consistent starter through the middle. Stylistically, both players are very different. Aubameyang carries the greater goalscoring threat while Lacazette offers better ball-to-feet, back-to-goal ability. It is the latter, though, who has made Arsenal tick since finding a stable home in Arteta’s system.

When looking at comparable players, Ollie Watkins of Aston Villa appears to be the type of striker Arteta should be after. Or, in other words, a younger, taller, more prolific Lacazette. If Arteta wants a striker capable of involving himself in build-up and transitional play, Watkins has the statistical profile to to meet the brief.

Comparing the three strikers’ output per 90 minutes this season, Aubameyang naturally tops the charts for goals scored at 0.35 (despite this being a very low-scoring season by his standards). But in the key attacking aspects that have seen Arsenal transform over the last few weeks, Lacazette and Watkins stand out.

Both are hitting around the 40-mark for touches per 90 minutes, 39.61 and 41.63 for Watkins and Lacazette respectively, compared to Aubameyang’s 34.69.

Elsewhere both Watkins and Lacazette average over a chance created per 90 (1.06 and 1.45 respectively); Aubameyang, on 0.78 chances created per 90, is not.

They are also working off the ball more effectively. Per 90 minutes, Watkins (1.26) and Lacazette (1.35) win possession in the middle third more frequently than Aubameyang (0.78).

Interceptions are at 0.4 and 0.52 for Watkins and Lacazette, respectively. Aubameyang has yet to make any interceptions this season. Whether due to inability, tactical instructions or a combination of the two, Aubameyang’s defensive and creative metrics fail to transcend the pure goalscoring devastation he typically brings to a team.

If this is the direction Arteta wants to take, Watkins fits the archetype and then some. A diligent worker off the ball, a checkpoint player who can drop deep and filter balls through to Arsenal’s youthfully-exuberant attack, Watkins would be a move that, stylistically, makes absolute sense for Arteta’s blueprint.

Dominic Calvert-Lewin (Everton)

A similar argument could be made for Dominic Calvert-Lewin. As well as being a fine goalscorer and elite athlete, the England international is another hard-worker prepared to put in the hard yards and place team goals ahead of personal records.

So, if it’s a link-up forward Arsenal seek, there are few better Premier League-proven options than Calvert-Lewin. Only Harry Kane (70), Sadio Mane (63) and Mohamed Salah (61) have completed more succesful ‘layoffs’ than Calvert-Lewin (58) in the Premier League since the start of last season.

Gabriel Jesus (57), Marcus Rashford (57) and Son Heung-Min (57) all come next for that particular metric. The next non-Big Six player to top the charts is, you guessed it, Watkins (56); Roberto Firmino (55) places next to continue a familiar pattern.

Looking at this season alone, Lacazette actually tops that metric per 90 (1.97) for players with over 10 appearances. Playing the ball into feet from deep, the Frenchman has been brilliant at laying off and feeding the likes Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and Martin Odegaard. If anything, that sequence has been the hallmark of their recent success; a more fluid, cohesive frontline, one that attacks together, and presses together.

It’s clear Arteta wants a selfless striker, and in these two Premier League options he would be getting two of the least selfish the division has to offer, as far as their link-up play and off-the-ball numbers go.

Given how Arsenal have looked since Aubameyang’s exile, the question now perhaps shifts from ‘who will be his long-term successor?’ to ‘who will be Lacazette’s?’. “This is the best Arsenal I have seen in six seasons,” Guardiola recently said. Arteta has found a system that works. He would be daft to deviate.