Mikel Arteta may look back on the decision to drop Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as a turning point in his Arsenal tenure. Since the disciplinary breach which left the striker out in the cold and stripped of the captaincy, Arsenal have looked transformed.
With Alexandre Lacazette starting up front and Gabriel Martinelli, Bukayo Saka, Martin Odegaard and Emile Smith Rowe flourishing around him, Arsenal have won five games out of six, scoring 20 goals and climbing into the top four in the process.
There have been resounding victories over Southampton, Leeds and Norwich. Even Saturday’s 2-1 defeat to Manchester City offered encouragement. The Gunners deserved more than they got and Pep Guardiola knew it. “Arsenal were the better team,” he said.
Arsenal’s attacking improvement
Despite the result, Arsenal’s performance against Manchester City was a continuation of what came before it.
Since Aubameyang was dropped from the Arsenal squad for their 3-0 win over Southampton last month, City are the only side to have taken more points and scored more goals per game.
Arteta’s side were previously averaging just 1.2 goals per game, placing them 12th among Premier League clubs this season, but the increased output is a result of much-improved creativity, speed and cohesiveness in the final third.
With Lacazette pulling defenders out of position and Martinelli, Saka and Smith Rowe charging forward either side of him, Arsenal have been able to harm opponents from all angles, in turn giving Odegaard more targets to aim at in the No 10 position.
Arsenal now rank fourth in terms of shots per game, on 16, and their numbers for shots on target and expected goals per game since Aubameyang was dropped have also increased dramatically, placing them third among Premier League clubs in both metrics.
Auba’s declining output
The sample size remains small but Arsenal suddenly look a stronger and more effective team without Aubameyang, who was struggling to reproduce his best form in front of goal even before he was dropped and stripped of the captaincy.
The 32-year-old, so prolific in his first two-and-a-half seasons at the club and previously to that at Borussia Dortmund, has only scored four Premier League goals in 14 appearances this season having only found the net 10 times in 29 appearances last term.
That drop in his output was likely factored into Arteta’s decision to drop him from the side.
Aubameyang was outstanding in the first few months of the Spaniard’s tenure, leading Arsenal to FA Cup glory over Chelsea at Wembley before signing a bumper new contract in September 2020, but his scoring rate has in fact been declining year on year.
This season, he is averaging only 0.35 goals per 90 minutes.
Some might argue this is because he isn’t getting enough service, and, certainly, Arsenal have had issues with creativity in recent years. But Aubameyang is averaging roughly three shots per 90 minutes this season – which is more than he was in the 2019/20 campaign, when he scored 29 times in all competitions.
The biggest change is that he simply isn’t putting away many of his chances.
His shot conversion rate this season stands at just 11.4 per cent. In 2019/20, by contrast, his conversion rate of 23.7 per cent put him behind only Leicester’s Jamie Vardy and Southampton’s Danny Ings among Premier League strikers starting regularly.
How Lacazette’s style differs
Given Arsenal’s recent improvement, there is perhaps an argument for Lacazette to be handed a new contract as his existing deal is due to expire at the end of the campaign.
Given how the club have recruited over the last 18 months, however, putting the emphasis on youth over experience, it seems unlikely he is viewed as a long-term solution.
Lacazette’s scoring rate is not at the level Arsenal require – the Frenchman has only scored three times in the Premier League this season and never scored more than 14 goals in a single campaign in the competition – but he does at least offer stylistic solutions in the short-term.
One issue with Aubameyang is that when he is not scoring, he offers little else. Lacazette, however, is far more involved in Arsenal’s general play and build-up, happily dropping deep to pick up possession with his back to goal, then bringing others into the game.
This can be seen in his numbers for touches and passes per 90 minutes. While Aubameyang’s numbers in those metrics are among the lowest in the Premier League this season, Lacazette’s are far higher. He is also creating considerably more chance – 1.4 per 90 minutes compared to Aubameyang’s 0.8 per 90 minutes.
Lacazette’s willingness to drop deep and feed others sometimes comes at the cost of his own goal threat – this season, he is averaging only 1.4 shots per 90 minutes – but his superior link-up play has helped Saka, Martinelli and the rest shine.
Those young stars have been able to pick up the goalscoring burden as a result in recent weeks, while Lacazette is also proving far more effective than Aubameyang out of possession.
He makes considerably more tackles, ball recoveries and interceptions, and that defensive diligence is key for Arteta.
Indeed, Lacazette’s off-the-ball work on Saturday at the Emirates Stadium was invaluable in helping Arsenal pin Manchester City back for long periods of the first half.
Nketiah, Balogun options
Could the solution to Arsenal’s striker conundrum come from their academy?
The club have enjoyed great success in that regard, after all, with Hale End graduates Saka and Smith Rowe becoming talismanic figures for the senior side over the last 18 months, and that duo’s former academy team-mate Eddie Nketiah represents another option up front beyond Lacazette and Aubameyang.
The 22-year-old provided the latest reminder of his lethal finishing ability against Sunderland in the Carabao Cup last month, scoring a clinical hat-trick to help Arsenal claim a 5-1 win.
Those goals took his total to 18 in 71 appearances for his boyhood club, figures which become more impressive when you consider 42 of his appearances have come from the bench.
Nketiah’s average of a goal every 157 minutes in all competitions underlines his efficiency in front of goal.
Like Lacazette, though, Nketiah’s contract is up in the summer, with the striker seemingly intent on departing in search of more regular playing opportunities.
There are question marks, too, over whether he is the right fit to lead the line for this Arsenal side.
Nketiah is a penalty-box striker rather than one who will look to bring others into play, after all. The challenge for Arteta is to find someone who offers link-up play like Lacazette’s – as well as the kind of goal threat previously provided by Aubameyang.
Perhaps Folarin Balogun could be a long-term solution.
Balogun boasts a formidable scoring record at youth level, and, in conversation with Sky Sports towards the end of last season, Arteta raved about his “unique qualities” as a striker, highlighting his work-rate and his ability to hold the ball up.
But Balogun’s recent senior appearances have shown he remains raw, and in need of a loan spell to gain exposure to first-team football before he can be thrown into the Arsenal side.
Alternatively, Arteta may look at Manchester City’s success with a false nine in lieu of a traditional striker, or Liverpool’s success using Diogo Jota through the middle, and trial moving one of his wide forwards into the same position.
But whether it’s this January or in the summer, a new striker looks like an inevitable next step in his Arsenal rebuild. Their recent upturn in form without Aubameyang has provided a blueprint to follow.