Gunner Thoughts

The Fantastic (Front) Four?

There is something about this front four shows a lot of promise – balance.

For quite some time, there has been a call for Arsenal, more specifically Mikel Arteta, to identify his strongest starting eleven, not that finding a “strongest” eleven is exactly critical to success. These tweets from @Orbinho go a long way to dispelling the concept of needing a “standard starting lineup”.

The “most common”, meaning the exact eleven that has played together the most in Premier League era has play just 10 matches together.

It gets a little more interesting when you look at Arsenal’s Invincibles.

The most common lineups of that season only every played 3 matches together.

It tells you that rotation, change, tinkering, is as inevitable as any other aspect of football. I believe it becomes even more inevitable if you have a coach that believes in their ability to dissect an opponent and deploy tactics that cater to their team’s strengths in breaking down the opposition. It’s a widely accepted fact that Arsene Wenger possessed this ability, the jury is still out on Arteta’s capabilities.

However, understanding this goes a long way in adjusting our expectations as fans. Any person that has been on social media in the hour between lineup announcement and kickoff will understand the unending controversy that surrounds Arsenal’s selection. It makes sense that certain players will be routine fixtures among the team sheet, but the people that call out in angst at Arteta not maintaining a consistent starting eleven may need to adjust themselves.

Identifying Arsenal’s best XI? That may be a task that history suggests is not be feasible. Is it even practical? What’s best for one match is the worst for the next. The success at Old Trafford followed by disaster versus Aston Villa this season springs to mind sharply.

But there are strides that can be made, partnerships and pairings, and selections that cater to one another — and Arsenal have the one that could bring them back to a competitive state.

Aubameyang, Lacazette, and Saka, with Smith Rowe behind.

Long have Arsenal fans been looking to find ways to fit both Lacazette and Aubameyang into the same attacking three with potency. Granted, Aubameyang is far from firing on all cylinders, there was something extremely exciting that came from the Newcastle game — balance.

Under Mikel Arteta, and even before he arrived, Arsenal severely lacked an attacking presence on the right side. Despite having invested significantly in Pepe, then again in Willian, Arsenal’s right side seemed entirely isolated in matches. It wasn’t uncommon to see average player position maps looking like these:

Source: SofaScore
Source: SofaScore

In the first map you see Pepe and Maitland-Niles left to fend for themselves on the right to make something happen. In the second map, you see Pepe completely isolated on the right side.

Recently, against West Brom and Chelsea, we have begun to see that separation disappear.

Arsenal’s player position map v. West Brom
Source: SofaScore
Arsenal’s player position map versus Chelsea.
Source: SofaScore

This is a real moment of appreciation for what Bukayo Saka has brought to the right wing, as well as, a revelation of what the combination of Saka, Lacazette, and Smith Rowe offer.

As Lacazette comes deep to work in tandem with Smith Rowe, Saka tucks in more centrally, and the trio combine with one another in tight spaces. A prime example of that, of course, is the 2nd goal Arsenal scored against West Brom in which Saka capped off one of Arsenal’s best team movements since Wenger’s time with a tap-in goal.

With the understanding that we are starting to get better combination play from that right side, I want to look at the West Brom map one more time and point something out that we saw come to life in devastating effect against Newcastle on Saturday.

Arsenal’s player position map v. West Brom
Source: SofaScore

In the map we see two clusters in the attack — one on the right comprised of Smith Rowe (32), Lacazette (9), Saka (7), and Bellerin (2), and one on the left comprised of Xhaka (34), Tierney (3), and Aubameyang (14). There is seemingly a larger gap between the two that look like no man’s land, but I assure you that Smith Rowe’s movement does help close that distance in practice.

Now, against Newcastle, Arsenal scored two late goals. At this point, subs were in the game and Smith Rowe, Lacazette, and Saka had entered the fray. On the first goal, Arsenal produced another fantastic movement coming from the right side, involving Saka, Lacazette, and finished by Emile Smith Rowe. The second goal was a quick, decisive bit of play involving Tierney, Xhaka, and capped off by Aubameyang.

Two goals, two different means of scoring, six different players involved with the endgame, opposite sides of the pitch — balance.

For the first time in a long time it feels like Arsenal has the means of quality, team attacking play on both sides of the pitch. I don’t want to suggest those calling for Arteta’s head for not playing Aubameyang down the middle for weeks were wrong, I myself thought it seemed like a clear solution, but there are some obvious aspects to the attacking play that Lacazette is offering that Aubameyang can’t.

It also seems clear that in Arsenal’s set up, Aubameyang is more dangerous down the left where he is running in on goal, favoring his right foot. One of the clear chances that fell to him versus Newcastle, when he was playing the striker role, saw his shooting angle closed down as he dribbled toward his favored right side. From the left wing that doesn’t happen.

Changes are bound to happen, it’s a given, but what this front four offers Arsenal is a compatibility with one another, with their respective support options, and a real balance to their attacking game even if separated, left from right. It seems inevitable that Arsenal will always favor the left just a bit more, but with the chemistry being formed between ESR, Saka, and Lacazette I think we can expect that imbalance to even out more as their time together increases.

In Arsenal’s last four matches, they have produced a total of 72 shots with 31 on them on target. An average of 18 shots and 7.75 on goal. A dramatic increase over their season averages thus far, filled with foundational signs of success that can be built upon to help sustain it.

All last season, Arsenal were carried by the prolific goal scoring of Aubameyang. All last season, fans commented on how unsustainable it was. Could this front four be the key to sharing the attacking burden and presenting a balanced attacking front?

It may be too early to label them as fantastic, but it’s not too early to deem their recent performances as such. Four wins in four, and here’s to many more.

Enjoy the day, Gooners!

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