Arsenal have a problem with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Not that Aubameyang is at fault here; rather, it is how Aubameyang has declined in productivity since a) moving to Arsenal and b) moving to a left-sided role.
You literally only have to look at xG. pic.twitter.com/763EpvNIMQ— Lewis (@LGAmbrose) September 13, 2018
In terms of expected goals and assists, Aubameyang has gone from being a player who contributed to a goal every 90 minutes at Dortmund to one who contributes to three in four full games at Arsenal last season, and less than one every two this season (albeit in a small sample size). It continued on Saturday, as Scott Willis noted:
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang concern watch: Just 1 touch in the box. 13 final 3rd touches, 2 shots (0.08 xG). My concern levels with him on the wing has moved up to probably a 7— Scott #Project24 Willis (@oh_that_crab) September 15, 2018
In fairness to Aubameyang, he would’ve had a tap in on Saturday had Aaron Ramsey simply squared to him, not ballooned a cross. Yet that would’ve been two touches in the penalty box; a player who took nearly four shots every 90 minutes at Dortmund now averages two and a half at Arsenal. His production has declined, and having outperformed xG last season, he’s now underperforming this.
There are, of course, contributing factors: joining a new team, in a new league, always requires a period of adjustment, and furthermore, with Aubameyang unable to play in the Europa League, he was often tasked with playing with some of Arsenal’s squad players and younger players. Yet his production has been even worse this season, and while that can be tempered by Arsenal having a difficult opening to the season, there is still cause for concern.
Simply put, Aubameyang is not being asked to utilize his strengths—much like Mesut Özil and Aaron Ramsey, who are also in awkward positions. Ramsey is playing higher up the pitch to accommodate a second defensive midfielder, necessitating Özil playing on the right. And, as a left winger, Aubameyang is not the type of left-sided player that Emery usually utilizes. Rather than trying to be creative and play in the half spaces, Aubameyang is trying to be sprung in behind. But with Arsenal’s first halves being largely defensive and conservative, it is not happening. Matching Emery’s preferred style with the attacking players at his disposal is proving to be an awkward fit.
Emery has thus far been wedded to using a 4231 shape, much like Arsène Wenger was. There is, though, the possibility to change shape, as Wenger did at the backend of the 2016-17 season, to great success. Then, Wenger changed to a 3421, with Alexis Sánchez and Mesut Özil behind a striker—Danny Welbeck or Olivier Giroud. While that is a potential for Emery, inverting the front three and using Özil behind Lacazette and Aubameyang, it’d likely mean leaving out Ramsey, and definitely mean leaving out Iwobi and Mkhitaryan.
In a diamond 442, or a 4312, Emery could have Özil behind Lacazette and Aubameyang, and Ramsey in a deeper midfield position, from where his runs are more effective. The rest of the midfield could consist of two from Guendouzi, Torreira or Xhaka, or even Iwobi or Mkhitaryan, if Arsenal are at home to weaker opposition. The role of the fullbacks in providing the width would not be that different to what they are now, though the importance of the fullbacks getting forward earlier in the attack would be slightly higher, necessitating the use of either Ainsley Maitland-Niles or Sead Kolasinac, rather than Nacho Monreal.
There could be defensive concerns, but off the ball, it would be feasible for Arsenal to press in a fairly similar shape to how they press now: the front two could press, and Özil could drop off, allowing the left-sided shuttling player—Xhaka or Ramsey, you would expect—to cover the left hand side. Or, the front two could split and Arsenal could press in a 433/4141 shape, which allows for more aggressive pressing.
Arsenal’s shape when in possession with Aubameyang, Ramsey, Özil and Lacazette in the team has almost been a lopsided 4222 shape, making the side imbalanced. With a diamond 442, it would give Arsenal more verticality with Ramsey, and allow Aubameyang and Lacazette to play in a genuine partnership, rather than rely on Arsenal slipping the ball down the channels.
As it stands, Arsenal are not getting enough out of their best players. Moving to a 4312 system would get more out of them. This is not to indulge the Arsenal players, but rather, to make a pragmatic decision about how Arsenal are best suited to get results. One criticism of Arsène Wenger was that he was tactically inflexible, and would play players out of position. If Unai Emery is to move Arsenal beyond the Wenger era, tactical flexibility will be a requirement, from both the players, and crucially, Emery himself.