Mikel Arteta’s bright start at Arsenal and a broad understanding of his project have bought him plenty of goodwill, but no manager is immune from criticism.
While there is a healthy undercurrent of optimism around the club after a productive transfer window, familiar debates continue to rage among supporters.
Mesut Ozil’s extended hiatus is never far from view, but Saturday’s 1-0 defeat at Manchester City means that, for now, another talking point has taken precedence.
Arsenal’s team sheet at the Etihad Stadium showed Arteta is happy to lift shock tactics straight from the playbook of his mentor, and opposing manager, Pep Guardiola.
Top-scorer Alexandre Lacazette and in-form young gun Eddie Nketiah were both left on the bench, with Arteta instead naming Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Willian and Nicolas Pepe as his attacking triumvirate.
Premier League November Player of the Month odds with William Hill:
- Dominic Calvert-Lewin: 12/1
- Kevin De Bruyne: 12/1
- Mohamed Salah: 12/2
- Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang: 12/1
- Sadio Mane: 14/1
- James Rodriguez: 16/1
*You have to be 18+ to gamble. All odds and offers within this article are accurate at the time of writing (12:10 19/10/2020). BeGambleAware.
With no traditional central striker among them, fans would have been forgiven for expecting Aubameyang to take centre stage. Instead, it was Willian who lined up there, performing an unfamiliar withdrawn No.9 role which ultimately bore no fruit.
Playing against a new-look defensive pairing of Ruben Dias and Nathan Ake, the Brazilian managed just 32 ineffectual touches, with no shots on target, successful dribbles or passes in Man City’s area.
Out in what has become his familiar position on the left of Arsenal’s 3-4-3 formation, Aubameyang was well-marshalled by the fleet-footed Kyle Walker. The Gabonese forward’s only shot came when he was incorrectly ruled offside at the end of the first period and his best moment was a second-half cross which Pepe could only head straight at Ederson.
Having now seen the 31-year-old fail to score or assist in his last three Premier League games (incidentally since he was tied down to a lucrative new three-year deal) Arteta has a problem on his hands.
If he doesn’t trust Lacazette to lead the line in games against other “Big Six” opponents and still sees Nketiah as an understudy, then why not move Aubameyang into the centre?
Until now, there were reasonable answers as to why Aubameyang is not being used in the position of his Dortmund days and early-Arsenal career. Arteta’s preferred 3-4-3 formation since the restart means whoever plays centre-forward is not necessarily the closest player to goal.
This and the focus on quick transitions, coupled with Aubameyang’s pace and ability to cut inside onto his favoured right foot, made his move out to the left an understandable one.
High-functioning examples of wide goalscorers exist elsewhere, too. Liverpool’s success with Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah playing either side of the tireless Roberto Firmino, cutting in off the flanks and arriving late at the back post shows that goalscoring does not have to come from central starting positions. Arsenal fans will also remember the prolific nature of one Thierry Henry in similar areas.
- Aubameyang pre-Arteta (Premier League | per90): Goals: 0.73 | Touches in the area: 4.81 | Shots inside the box: 2.44 | Shots on target: 1.29
- Aubameyang post-Arteta (Premier League | per90): Goals: 0.52 | Touches in the area: 4.29 | Shots inside the box: 1.88 | Shots on target: 1.36
But on average under Arteta, Aubameyang is scoring fewer goals and receiving the ball inside the opponent’s penalty area less frequently. When faced with an organised defence and a team with a lead to hold onto, the space he needs to operate at his best is diminished. His role changes from looking to run in behind and stretch defences, to trying to thread eye-of-the-needle through balls and sending over hopeful crosses to others.
Shouldn’t out-and-out wingers Pepe and Willian, versatile youngster Bukayo Saka and capable full-backs Hector Bellerin and Kieran Tierney be crossing for Aubameyang, not the other way around?
Arsenal broke their transfer record to sign Aubameyang from Borussia Dortmund for £56m in January 2018 because of his outstanding goalscoring record: a staggering 141 strikes in 213 matches across all competitions. To refocus on his primary skill is not reductive.
“He is a team player and you can ask him to play anywhere and he’s happy to take it,” Arteta said in July when asked about Aubameyang’s role.
With games coming thick and fast, and with the Europa League group stages beginning against Rapid Vienna on Thursday, perhaps Arteta should explore his options and ask his captain politely to rediscover his shooting boots as his centre-forward.
Premier League title odds with William Hill:
- Man City: 4/5
- Liverpool: 5/2
- Tottenham: 12/1
- Chelsea: 16/1
- Everton: 20/1
- Arsenal: 25/1