Amid Dani Ceballos’ excellent debut for Arsenal, fans were treated to what may be the future: an attacking trio of Nicolas Pépé, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and Alexandre Lacazette. While the individuals sparkled—Ceballos’ turns and quick one-touch passing drawing comparisons with Santi Cazorla and Cesc Fabregas, Aubameyang’s winner, Pépé’s dribbling—Arsenal’s system as a whole is still very much a work in progress. For the second match in succession, Arsenal were out shot, with Burnley shooting 18 times to Arsenal’s 15. For the season, Arsenal have conceded 27 shots and taken 23, in line with last season’s statistics, where Arsenal averaged 12 shots a game and conceded an average of 13.
It will, of course, take time for Arsenal’s attacking players to gel together. Ceballos and Pépé joined later in the summer, and both are not only adapting to a new league, but are coming off of summer tournaments. Yet, some concerns about the viability of this particular attack arose, even in the short 26 minutes they all played together. The viability, in part, speaks to larger issues with Arsenal’s attacking play: that progression of the ball into the midfield is not quick or succinct, hampered by poor structure in playing out from the back, as I detailed here last week. Despite working on playing out from the back in the two pre-seasons under Unai Emery, the Gunners remain inconsistent at it, with the Emirates crowd cheering ironically as Bernd Leno indicated for Sokratis and David Luiz to prepare for a long goal kick late on in the match.
The insertion of Ceballos improved Arsenal’s playing out from the back, in part because he didn’t stick to a fixed #10 role. Unai Emery generally prefers his number 10s to push higher up in possession, and to almost act as a decoy, allowing the wide midfielders to come inside into half-spaces that a number 10 would utilize, and play from there. Yet, in using Aubameyang wide, as Emery did for 71 minutes, that structure had to be adjusted, and Ceballos had a freer roll, switching, as Emery alluded to after the match, with Joe Willock, here used deeper: “I spoke with [Ceballos] - before coming here - to play like an eight and a 10. Today he started like a 10, but a lot of times he was changing with Willock into the eight position, where he can feel better on the pitch.”
Ceballos’ influence certainly improved Arsenal’s ball progression, but there were moments where Arsenal still cheaply gave possession away. And in that search for balance, Arsenal may find difficulty in trying to fit Lacazette, Aubameyang and Pépé into a front three. While there have been some suggestions that Arsenal can replicate Liverpool’s front three, Sadio Mané is better suited for the wide role than Aubameyang is, and Liverpool’s midfield three is far more structured than Arsenal’s.
Pépé and Aubameyang are also different to the typical wide player Emery prefers. As mentioned earlier, the wide players end up acting almost as dual #10s at the top of a box midfield, with the fullbacks providing wide support, and the number 10 pushing higher up. In possession, Emery’s 4231 effectively morphs into a 4222. With Pépé and Aubameyang, though, that’s not only a waste of their talents, but also, not fitting of their skills. Using all three, then, will mean an adjustment of Emery’s preferred system, one that he has used at Valencia, Sevilla, PSG, and now Arsenal.
Against Burnley, the results were mixed: despite largely dominating second half possession, Arsenal took only 8 shots—the same as Burnley. Arsenal didn’t create many big chances from the run of play, with Aubameyang’s goal coming after Ceballos lost possession, and then won the ball back. Indeed, the best chance was created by Pépé, for Aubameyang, who had taken up a central role, perhaps pointing to how Pépé’s ability to create and run behind can see him used on the right hand side.
This early passage of play may point to how it could work: here, Aubameyang has vacated the left side, with Ceballos taking the inside left channel, Pépé the right, and Monreal providing width wide. What is notable about this attack, though, is that it was an attack in transition: Arsenal, having kicked off, won the ball back in midfield. With attacks that begin deeper in Arsenal territory, where Ceballos was needed more for ball progression, that 2-2 structure that Emery prefers seemed harder to replicate. When Arsenal built from the back, twice in a minute Maitland-Niles tried to find Pépé, but gave possession up instead, with Emery’s preferred box system disjointed because Aubameyang has no real interest in building play. This is less of an issue in transition and on the counter attack, but utilizing that as a strength in matches against teams that play in a low block, like Burnley, would require Arsenal to be far better off the ball.
Last season, Emery discovered that a back three was how he could play his best players in their best positions. Before utilizing a back three, Emery spent a large part of the season deciding between Lacazette and Aubameyang, a solution that is more difficult with both in contract negotiations. Finding the balance of Arsenal’s front three is crucial for the success of their season, but it may be a season-long search for a solution that doesn’t really exist. But with Arsenal’s competitors also mixing and matching, the best solution may not be necessary, but rather, just one that, like Saturday, allows the individual quality of Arsenal’s best players to overcome deeper systemic issues.