Bukayo Saka gracefully rolls the ball across the box, slipping it directly into the path of Arsenal captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who was simply asked to do what he does best – score. Making his mark on scoresheet with a goal for the 20th time this season now sees his name spoken in the same breath as the best. Lionel Messi, Christiano Ronaldo, Robert Lewandowski, and Thierry Henry.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang joins Messi, Ronaldo, and Lewandowski as the only players to score 20 or more league goals in each season for the last 5 seasons across Europe’s top leagues. He is also the first player to score 20 goals in back-to-back seasons for the Arsenal since club legend Thierry Henry. It’s good company to keep for an attacker and a testament to his prowess in the box, scoring efficiency, and the consistency he has brought throughout his career.
Yet, notice in the last paragraph I said attacker, not striker. While the company he keeps may not all be labeled as a striker, it is a sticking point for many when it comes to Aubameyang who is often called upon to influence games from a wide roll, picking and choosing when to tuck into the center to be dangerous in Arteta’s attack. I have written in the past about Aubameyang’s ability to score effectively from anywhere.
Everything goes smoothly for people when the goals are coming and with it, the results. What’s to question? And yet, when Arsenal sit in 8th place and Arteta looks to fit all his best players on the field cohesively, many question if Aubameyang’s best use is on the fringe and not as close to the goal as Arsenal can get him. In Arteta’s time as manager, Aubameyang has been the central striker once. It came in Arsenal’s first game after Arteta’s appointment against Everton. That game was managed by Freddie Ljungberg while Mikel watched a lackluster performance lead to a draw with no goals.
Now Arsenal add an additional challenge – keeping Bukayo Saka in the lineup. The boy has proved to everyone his ability to make a difference in the game regardless of where he is played. Left wing, right wing, left-center midfield, left back — it doesn’t matter, his presence is noticed by the opposition. But playing him on the right wing leaves out Nicolas Pepe who will return to action shortly have a small hiatus for the birth of his child. Congratulations, Nicolas Pepe!
Although Pepe has been a little bit streaky this year at times, he has plodded along and still managed to tally 16 G/A this year to mark his first year in the league. While some will criticize the man by waving his £72m fee in his face, Arsenal signed him at that price with the future very much in mind. So how does Arteta cater to that future?
Aubameyang, Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli, Eddie Nketiah, Lacazette, Nicolas Pepe, Reiss Nelson, Joe Willock – the list of players vying for a spot in the top 3 is extensive. But with Martinelli out, Nketiah facing a potential 3 game ban, pending an appeal, and a schedule that mandates the rotation of players, Arteta may have to make changes to stay fit and dangerous.
Now are the games where we will see if Arteta is willing to play Aubameyang down the center or refuses to because of what Aubameyang is able to do in Arteta’s system clearly designed for the left wing, danger-man. Many want to see a front three of Saka, Aubameyang, and Pepe – but does it work?
The central role plays a crucial part to Arsenal and Arteta’s engine in both the press and the attack. They are also asked to drop a little deeper into the center, collect the ball, hold it up, and distribute – often to the wingers who are tucking into the center to slip in between opposition’s center backs and outside backs. That tuck and slip movement is something that Aubameyang excels at and there is a reason it is a focal point of the Arsenal attack.
The burden of this decision and the job of making it work falls heavy on the shoulders of Mikel Arteta, but it’s not irrational to believe Mikel has what it takes to change things up in the attack and cater to Aubameyang down the middle. After all, when faced with a porous defense, he shifted the roles to provide more cover in the midfield. After the beginning of the restart, Arsenal suffered early setbacks through injuries and Arteta was asked to adjust once more. Rather than sticking with the same 4-2-3-1 or forcing the 4-3-3 formations he prefers, he addressed the limited number of quality midfielders by limiting the number of them on the field.
Shifting to a fluid 3-4-3 with wingbacks has allowed Arsenal to have an extra defender if they need to drop five into the back, it favors David Luiz who has often thrived in a 3-back system, it allows Tierney to get into the attack comfortably, and has seen an Arsenal side capable of playing attacking football and rigid defensive football. What it has also done is demonstrate early signs of Mikel Arteta’s ability to not only adjust formations to fit his side but do it successfully while ensuring players know their roles in the plan.
It bodes well for the future and it suggests Mikel has the ability to design a plan to give Aubameyang chances to score from the center. The stats are there. If given chances, Aubameyang can score from any position, its just about providing him with those chances. Maybe we see the wings come more central to pick up the ball deep while their wingback overlaps more frequently. Maybe Aubameyang has the ability to hold up the ball better than we know and can look to exchange with the wings and finish from the positions Lacazette has struggled to convert from all year.
Truly, I hope Nketiah sees a result from his appeal that reduces his suspension, but if it forces Arteta to sample a new front three and the attacking design offers Aubameyang better opportunities to score – it may be a blessing in disguise. His future has a lot of question marks around it, his role in Arsenal’s future and hunt for European football is unknown, but one this is for sure – the guy can score.