Why Pepe, Lacazette and Aubameyang are ineffective as a front three
By Sumaiya Vawda
Throw caution to the wind- unleash! Let the stars show their talent; no more rigid build-up. Get as many goal-scorers onto the pitch as possible for football is a low scoring affair. These are often the cries made regarding a top-heavy Arsenal squad, rendered in escalating pitch because Nicolas Pépé, Alex Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang represent Arsenal’s three largest transfers. Surely, three good players posing a varied threat to defences would yield dividends on investment, right? Perhaps learning that the trio has started together just 11 times over two seasons will give you an answer (5 wins, 4 losses, 2 draws per FBREF). Upon Pépé’s arrival at the Emirates, excitement rumbled for a replication of Liverpool’s fast and tricky wide forwards, running from out to in, embellished by a number 9 dropping deep. This formula seems fanciful in hindsight, yet it did somewhat prevail in last season’s FA Cup final. Wins against Man City and Chelsea at Wembley saw the front three adorned with a 3-4-3 formation. Ainsley Maitland-Niles played an auxiliary left-wing-back role which highlighted his defensive prowess. Rotations between himself, Aubameyang and Tierney (arriving from central defence) were fascinating in attack. Héctor Bellerín positioned at right-wing-back centred his best traits; his underlapping foray quite literally drove the team to a cup-winning goal. In a tactically under-developed side, having the best pure goalscorers on the pitch made sense, so a chipped ball over the top into one of them could steal a goal before sitting deep to absorb pressure. Thus, wing-backs providing cover for their defensive deficiencies and offering easy passing options made Pépé, Lacazette and Aubameyang functional as a front three. Without the added wide players, the Arsenal trident, unsurprisingly, does not shine at the level of Salah, Firmino and Mané. The performance against Liverpool felt like plagiarism of latter Unai Emery games- passive play and dreary execution varnished with fear. The current iteration of Arteta’s side focuses on ball retention and progression. On Saturday, this was severely lacking without the cogs of Granit Xhaka and David Luiz. Emphasis is placed on passing triangles in the wide areas, which benefits from technical players in those positions. When Emile Smith Rowe or, dare I say, Willian play on the left, they form a central box with Xhaka, Thomas Partey and Martin Ødegaard. This creates central solidity and aids passing between the lines to draw out defences. Since the left winger is a connecting role, Aubameyang playing there dramatically changes the way set patterns play out.
Against Liverpool, Arsenal did not have significant possession and seemed set up to gain territory from long passes. A high line with young Kabak and Phillips presented an opportunity for this to be effective. Yet, Pépé did not complete take-ons when the rare chance presented, and Aubameyang was occupied tracking Alexander-Arnold and making sliding tackles in our box. Lacazette was unreliable in possession, and Fabinho nullified Ødegaard’s efforts. Notably, when Arsenal lost to City under Ljungberg, the interim manager claimed he didn’t select Aubameyang and Lacazette together as it imbalanced the team and exposed defensive vulnerabilities. This was evident on Saturday when Aubameyang was unnaturally deep and struggled to cut off crosses. In a possession-based side, Aubameyang and Pépé selected together are inept on the wings. If counter-attacking football is your flavour, Lacazette isn’t quick enough through the middle. Further, counter-attacking requires a physical element of winning duels to transition. This is another area where the French-speaking trio come up short. There simply isn’t sufficient balance, impetus and form in this front three around which a game-plan can be sculpted with a back four. Comparatively, Saka and Smith Rowe are capable of intelligent movement, link-play, tactical discipline, incisive passing, bursts of pace and growing end-product. In ten league games where the duo have started together, Arsenal have won seven. The team have only five wins from the other 20 games (per Sky Sports). Whether being the enablers or the stars, they’ve easily been the better players this season. The absence of Luiz and Xhaka underlined that, despite their flaws, the team is reliant on them for ball progression towards the top-end. Overall, the attack appears more balanced with two technical midfielders and two forwards filling the four slots. Assuming that Ødegaard plays as the attacking midfielder, Saka and Smith Rowe flanking one of the senior strikers seems most viable. Willian is the most analogous to Smith Rowe and Pépé to Saka. Martinelli provides an interesting variation on the left for transitions or potentially at centre-forward as the team evolves. Until then, investment in Aubameyang’s contract dictates a system giving him central prominence. In a utopian alternate universe, Aubameyang, Lacazette and Pépé are leading us back to the top four. In reality, much of the progress seems to emanate from Hale End. Arteta’s tactical automatisms have also proven productive with these players. So, bring all ye youthful and inconsistent, Mikel Arteta needs help patching over the experienced and expensive.