Thanks to last year’s Premier League campaign failure, Arsenal have found themselves battling it out in the Europa League, the NIT of European football. And thanks to a second consecutive underachieving domestic run that has them sitting 6th in the table with 8 games to play and 13 points left to make up, they have now found themselves with the Europa League as their only reasonable entry back into the world of Europe’s footballing elite. This is not ideal for a club that enjoyed two decades of Champions League qualification being all but guaranteed, but as Aristotle once said, it is what it is.
Much like Manchester United last season, Arsenal have put all of their eggs into the Europa League basket. So far, they have managed to navigate that sea successfully, winning their group stage with a 4-1-1 record and dispatching Ostersunds FK and AC Milan in the knockout stages to find themselves with a quarterfinal series against CSKA Moscow, hosting the Russian Premier League side on April 5th at the Emirates before a return leg on April 12th.
To some surprise, Arsenal have navigated this competition during a season that saw a very un-Arsenal winter transfer period, which featured the exodus of several key Europa League contributors, including Olivier Giroud, Theo Walcott, Mathieu Debuchy, and Francis Coquelin. Giroud and Walcott accounted for six of Arsenal’s 14 goals scored in the group stage and linked up for a wondrous Giroud goal against Red Star Belgrade.
Joining the squad, however, were the likes of Europa League conqueror Henrikh Mkhitaryan from Manchester United and record-signing striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from German side Borussia Dortmund. In many respects, this was an upgrade for an uninspiring Arsenal squad in need of a revitalized attacking identity. Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan’s time together at Dortmund fostered a chemistry that had Arsenal fans eager to see them link up for the Gunners.
Thanks to dumb and arbitrary rules that are only now being changed because they are dumb and arbitrary, Aubameyang is unfortunately cup tied to Dortmund who, like CSKA Moscow, were bounced from the group stage of the Champion’s League and were given a berth in the Europa League knockout stages as a consolation prize. Despite not playing a single match for Dortmund in the Europa League, Aubameyang is unable to play for Arsenal in the only competition left that matters. That’s not great, but thankfully, Arsenal has options in the attack.
Because of Aubameyang’s unfortunate circumstance and the Winter Transfer Window Fire Sale, Arsenal are left with two first team strikers for the Europa League: Danny Welbeck, who has been with the club since 2014, and Alexandre Lacazette, who Arsenal brought in at the beginning of the season as the club’s record signing before Aubameyang arrived in the winter. Both have their pros and cons as the first-choice attacker for the Gunners, but both have very different playing styles. So, which attacker should be Arsenal’s Europa League starter going forward?
Making a Case for Danny Welbeck
As a member of the team, Danny Welbeck is great. He is phenomenally athletic, has a great attitude, and seems to genuinely love the club and his teammates. Stylistically, he plays physically and uses his length to win balls in the air and his pace to beat defenders. His runs draw defenders away from the talented midfielders behind him, allowing them space to attack. What he lacks in grace and ball skills he makes up for with tenacity and positioning, often finding himself in the right place to clean up a loose ball in the box or put a header on frame. While he doesn’t score worldies or screamers, he is quick to react in a chaotic scrum and get a foot on the ball in a tight space.
Where he has the obvious advantage over Lacazette is his size and physicality. At 6’1” and 161 lbs, he is built like an NFL defensive back. He is a physical specimen who looks like he could play nearly anywhere on the pitch. For all of Lacazette’s skill, he is not the overall athlete that Welbeck is, nor is he as physical a player. Lacazette prefers space, while Welbeck is comfortable both on the run and in the middle of a crowded box, relying on his strength to win headers in the air and his length to get a foot on a loose ball. Welbeck is not blazingly fast, but has a long stride that, combined with his frame, allows him to dribble at full speed while protecting the ball from defenders.
However, he is not a great striker by most measures, including the one that matters most: goals. He can only ever seem to score if he is falling down. He is often a source of frustration and derision, but occasionally the provider of jubilation. This season, he has been largely out of form and has seemed to be suffering a crisis of confidence. He has scored only three times in the Premier League this season, which is one less than
All-World Striker Left Back Nacho Monreal. Welbeck has not scored a league goal since netting a brace against Bournemouth on September 9th, while his other contributions include a game-winning goal in the Carabao Cup against West Ham and a consolation goal in the embarrassing display against Nottingham Forrest in the FA Cup that we will never speak of again.
When news broke after Arsenal’s loss to rivals Tottenham in February that Alexandre Lacazette would have to undergo a minor knee procedure that would result in him being sidelined for 4-6 weeks, the collective fanbase held their breath. Not only was yet another Arsenal player sidelined with a knee injury (seriously, is that a thing every other player has to experience at Arsenal as a right of passage?), but that left the squad with Danny Welbeck and Eddie Nketiah as the sole forward attacking players in the Europa League right as they were set to face a particularly in-form AC Milan squad that had not conceded a goal in over 500 minutes.
Despite not finding the score sheet in the first match, Welbeck’s movement and work rate against AC Milan were instrumental in the attack. His presence opened up space for the midfielders to attack the goal, and he successfully stretched the opposing team’s defense with his runs. In the first half, he set up Calum Chambers for a wide-open shot at the top of the box that was stopped by Gianluigi Donnarumma, and shortly after he made a fantastic cross to meet Henrikh Mkhitaryan whose shot skimmed the crossbar. At the stroke of halftime, he laid off a pass to Ozil who threaded a ball to Aaron Ramsey for an easy goal. That result was bigger than the 2-0 scoreline indicated, and Welbeck was a large part of the team’s victorious display at the San Siro.
While many casual onlookers would point out a missed one-on-one in the first half and the miserably scuffed shot at the end of the second, Welbeck’s influence was noted. A striker’s main job is to put the ball in the net, but Welbeck turned in an admirable away performance in a significant match for an Arsenal side that, prior to the match, had just endured one of its worst months of football under Arsene Wenger.
Welbeck’s performance in the second leg at the Emirates was full of scandal, but also of opportunity and success. After earning a highly contentious penalty where he appeared to have blatantly taken a dive, Welbeck coolly slotted it home from the spot to draw Arsenal level after the team conceded a long-distance goal in the first half. It was also Welbeck’s header near the end of the match that iced the series and insured Arsenal’s spot in the quarterfinals of the Europa League competition. The brace broke a scoring drought that had plagued the striker for months, and his tenacious performance gave many members of the Arsenal faithful hope that he had finally broken out of his poor run of form.
Working in Welbeck’s favor, aside from his performance, is his health. Since returning from a knee injury (see?) suffered near the end of last season, he has been healthy and strong and has seemingly not lost a step. His performances against AC Milan were nothing if not promising, and his influence on each match was palpable. Lacazette is coming off of his own knee injury and has also seemed to suffer his own crisis of confidence since Aubameyang’s transfer. Welbeck could find this as an opportune time to capitalize on the moment and could have possibly justified his place as the first-choice attacking option in place of Lacazette and the question marks he presents coming off of an injury.
Making a Case for Alexandre Lacazette
When it was announced that Arsenal had secured Alexandre Lacazette at the beginning of the 2017-2018 Premier League season from Ligue 1 side Lyon, Arsenal fans were ecstatic. Wenger had finally reigned in an elite world-class striker, a piece of the puzzle that many had though to be missing from the club since the sale of Robin van Persie in 2012. His fluid playing style seemed a perfect fit for the flowing style of play that Arsene Wenger had established at Arsenal.
Although he is not the fastest player on the pitch, Lacazette’s ball skills and vision give him an attacking edge that allows him to find space for a well-placed shot or lay it off to another attacker. His goal against Crystal Palace was quintessential Wenger Ball, utilizing his patience, positioning, and touch to deftly slot the ball home after a delightful build-up through midfield maestro Mesut Ozil. He is capable of shots from any distance, which gives him an advantage over more one-dimensional attackers, and is a clear advantage over Welbeck, who prefers to capitalize on chaos in front of goal.
Despite not yet matching the types of numbers he was putting up with Lyon, Lacazette has had an admirable first season. Even without getting a consistent 90 minutes per game, he has scored 9 times for the Gunners - not an eye-popping total, but admirable for a player in their first year with a new club in a new league. However, he has been in a slump since the winter break and the transfer of Aubameyang, netting only once this calendar year.
A striker in a slump is a dangerous thing, as they can find themselves spinning their wheels needlessly and can view each match without a goal to their name as a failure. Being given the nod in the Europa League might be the vote of confidence Lacazette needs to regain his form and get his confidence back.
Lacazette is finally cleared to play following his lengthy injury layoff. The timing is a welcome relief for a team that is now solely focused on Europa League success to punch their ticket to next season’s Champions League competition. On paper, the choice seems easy: Lacazette is a more skilled finisher and plays a much more Arsenal-friendly style. But Lacazette must now compete with an on-the-rise Welbeck who asserted himself quite well against a talented AC Milan team over two legs.
So, the question at this stage remains: which striker should be starting for Arsenal in the Europa League? Do you risk the goal-scoring acumen of Lacazette for a healthy Welbeck who seems to be peaking at the right time, or do you trust that your club’s former-record-signing striker is going to be the goal scoring threat you know he can be, even if he is coming off an injury and has rarely played a full 90 for the club?
For me, it is a toss-up. What cannot be forgotten are the other ten players on the pitch. If the cast around the striker plays well, it makes their job easier. If they don’t, then the striker has a much taller task ahead of him. Although Lacazette has the bigger name, Welbeck is starting to come into his own as the season comes to an end. I trust that both will understand the weight of the fixtures ahead of them and give it their all, no matter who starts.
So, what say you? Give us your pick in the comments.