There had been progress—genuine progress—from Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal team, culminating, perhaps, in a 2-1 victory in the North London Derby last month. Arteta’s third re-jig of his team had worked; Arsenal had a more balanced attacking approach, and quality in midfield. Since then, Arsenal have not won a game of football: defeat at home against Olympiacos and Liverpool, draws against West Ham and Slavia Prague. The thing about green shoots, though, is you have to cultivate them. If you too quickly force them to grow, or transplant them, you risk the plants withering.
The North London Derby also marks another possible turning point: the last time Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was going to start at center forward in a match of real consequence. Aubameyang, of course, was late, and dropped. Alexandre Lacazette came into the team, and Aubameyang started at center forward against Olympiacos the following Thursday, where he missed several good opportunities. Lacazette has started at center forward in every game since.
There are multiple reasons why this is an issue. First, and foremost, is that Aubameyang is a better player and a better center forward than Lacazette. Lacazette played well against West Ham, was abysmal against Spurs, and even worse against Liverpool—and as for Thursday night’s performance, against Slavia Prague, well, it’s one where a picture, or perhaps a gif, paints a thousand words.
But the other, more pressing issue is that in starting Lacazette at center forward, Arteta has ripped up what was working, for dubious reasons of form and off the field issues (if they’re an issue that the club captain cannot start, then he shouldn’t be on the bench either).
When Arteta started Aubameyang at center forward, the club captain was usually supported by Bukayo Saka, Martin Ødegaard, and Emile Smith Rowe, or Willian. That gave Arsenal a number 10, a wide creator in Willian or Smith Rowe, who came inside to keep possession, allowing Saka to explore and push forward, as a second striker. This was the setup against Leeds, and for much of the matches that followed, and it saw Aubameyang’s best form of the season.
With Lacazette playing at center forward, the formula has to change. Lacazette doesn’t run behind like Aubameyang; he’s not alert in the 6-yard box, and frankly, he doesn’t take as many shots nor be able to create half-chances through movement. Lacazette, though, perhaps add some technical security, and allows players to bounce the ball off of him and move into space. Against Leicester, when Arteta rotated the team, Lacazette started at center forward with Willian on the left, and Nicolas Pépé on the right. Willian and Lacazette, combined with Ødegaard (though Smith Rowe started) gave Arsenal the ball security, while Pépé gave Arsenal the threat in behind, with Lacazette playing more of a second striker role, which suits his play at this stage.
Yet since the North London Derby, that formula, which had worked so well, has changed. Against West Ham, Aubameyang started on the right, with Saka on the left and Lacazette upfront. Arteta switched that at 2-0 down, with Saka moving to the right and Aubameyang to the left, but Arsenal’s captain was simply not involved; instead of getting the 3-4 chances he usually gets playing through the middle because of his movement, he had 0 shots, having had 4 against Olympiacos, and 4 in his previous start, against Burnley. Injury problems was perhaps the excuse for the convoluted set-up against West Ham, but there was none for Liverpool.
The set-up against Liverpool essentially brought a clash. Liverpool’s centre backs have been vulnerable to pace and being turned, but they were able to play high up because Lacazette dropped so deep, and was never a threat to run in behind. Yet, Aubameyang, the player to take advantage of that space, was anchored on the left, while Pépé had a poor game. If the plan was to play more possession, then Arsenal should’ve had one player to keep possession wide, with either Aubameyang through the middle or Pépé on the right. If the plan was to counter, then Aubameyang, not Lacazette, should’ve started through the middle with Pépé on the right, to have multiple options offering pace behind. Arteta chose neither, and got a muddled performance in return.
The composition of Arsenal’s lineups is not the sole issue at Arsenal—the underperformance in midfield, especially from Thomas Partey, and the inability to not shoot themselves in the foot defensively is also becoming a large problem. But Arsenal’s attack is one area that Arteta had seemingly solved. That work has now been undone, and having made these mistakes with his starting lineup, Arteta’s substitutions come too late to resolve the issue.
Solving this could be the difference between Arsenal getting through to the semi-finals of the Europa League and Arsenal going out. If Arsenal do go against Slavia Prague, Arteta, having meddled with an attacking system had begun to work, can have no complaints if it costs him his job.