In the run-up to the north London derby, Unai Emery had publicly complained in Spain (knowing full well that he would be instantly translated into English) that Arsene Wenger had left him an Arsenal team that had lost its “defensive structure”. That much may be true but Emery failed to point out exactly what his positive inheritance from Wenger had been, namely two outstanding strikers in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette.
Aubameyang and Lacazette are Emery’s Inheritance From Wenger
Leading the Way
Arsenal are a genuinely historic club, the first world-famous club (as a result of the great successes in the 1930s under Herbert Chapman) and one that prides itself on being acutely aware of its long tradition of success, which is arguably the longest of any major club in Europe, certainly in domestic terms. So it is entirely fitting that so much should be made at the club of one manager’s inheritance or legacy to another.
When Arsene Wenger took charge in 1996, he famously inherited the great Arsenal back four, which in reality was a back five of superb, experienced defenders whose names still trip off the tongue of any self-respecting Gooner more than two decades later: Adams, Bould, Keown, Winterburn and Dixon. So good was that defence that it provided the basis for Wenger’s first double-winning side in 1998, and so intelligent and skilful was Wenger’s use of it that Adams, Keown and Dixon were still playing and making contributions on and off the pitch four years later, when Wenger won his second league and FA Cup Double.
Ironically, that defence was so good that replacing it when its component parts finally began to age and creak became one of Wenger’s greatest challenges. He partly succeeded, in that the main replacements for the old guard – Sol Campbell (secured from Spurs, of course), Kolo Toure, Ashley Cole and Lauren – were good enough to provide the backline for the Invincibles season of 2004. However, they showed nothing like the staying power of their predecessors and, by 2006, when Campbell had already gone into decline and departed for Portsmouth and Ashley Cole had been christened ‘Cashley’ for joining Arsenal’s mega-rich rivals Chelsea, it had effectively broken up. Individual additions to the defence, in particular, William Gallas (acquired in the swap deal with Chelsea that took Cole to Stamford Bridge), were made, but as a whole, the Arsenal backline was weakened considerably and it effectively continued in that weakened state for a decade or so. Hence, Emery’s damning indictment of the lack of defensive structure’ of the side he took over in the summer.
Wenger’s Parting Gift
However, if Wenger was unable to provide his successor with a defence that was anywhere near as good as the one that he inherited from Graham, he still left Emery an impressive inheritance or legacy, and one that was as true to his own attacking convictions as a manager as defensive stinginess was to George Graham’s. In particular, he left Emery two fine strikers in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette.
The irony for Wenger, of course, is that he never really got to see the ‘Aubamazette’ partnership work in his last six months at The Emirates. Lacazette had joined the club in the summer of 2017 but, like so many foreign players, he struggled in his first season at Arsenal and quite simply got nowhere near the heights as a striker that he is now routinely reaching. Aubamayang only joined Arsenal in January of this year and although he had far less difficulty than Lacazette in adjusting to the pace and power of the Premier League, he was cup-tied in European competition (having played for Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League). Consequently, he was ineligible for selection in the Europa League ties that became Wenger’s last chance of salvaging his reputation and employment at Arsenal. Indeed, if Aubameyang had been able to play in the Europa League, then Wenger might just have won the competition, qualified for the Champions League and saved himself from the sack.
This season, Aubameyang and Lacazette have flourished together as the twin spearheads of the new Arsenal under Emery. Aubameyang is now the leading scorer in the Premier League with ten goals (including his pair against Tottenham) and Lacazette is not far behind with six and, in addition, they both have two assists. However, although they are dovetailing beautifully, they are not a classic striking partnership, at least in the old sense of the term, which meant two strikers playing up front directly alongside each other.
Instead, one man (usually Lacazette, at least until injury prevented him from starting the last couple of Premier League games) plays up front and centrally, in the classic centre-forward role, while the other (usually Aubameyang, at least until Lacazette’s recent injury) plays further wide, with Aubameyang usually appearing on the left wing and Lacazette on the right. Nevertheless, they still manage to pair up supremely well, sometimes swapping positions if they are both playing, and Aubameyang, in particular, is remarkably adroit at cutting in from the left and shooting with his right foot.
A Balancing Act
Emery’s handling of the two strikers has been extremely impressive and the performance against Tottenham was a further demonstration of that. Initially, Lacazette began on the bench. However, when Arsenal surrendered their early lead to go into the halftime break 2-1 down, Emery typically acted quickly and ruthlessly (two qualities that, sadly, Wenger had completely lost by the end of his Arsenal tenure). He substituted the largely ineffective Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan for Aaron Ramsey and Lacazette, and that decision completely changed the game, taking Arsenal from being 2-1 down at the interval to being 4-2 up at the end of the match.
Both substitutes starred against Spurs. Ramsey, who had an assist for Aubameyang’s second goal after brilliantly turning the ball into his path, may just have proved that he is the best number ten at the club ahead of Mkhitaryan and the mysteriously absent Mesut Özil. And Lacazette not only scored Arsenal’s third goal (albeit as the result of a deflection off Eric Dier) but terrorised Tottenham with his terrific, swift play on the right wing.
The fact that Emery introduced Lacazette as a right-winger, or ‘wide attacker’ as wingers are often called today, was itself hugely instructive and showed how much he has learned about his star strikers and how to use them. At the end of Wenger’s time in charge of Arsenal and at the start of Emery’s reign, Lacazette invariably started up front as the main striker while Aubameyang played wide left. Moreover, it was often the case that if Aubameyang started up front centrally on his own, whenever Lacazette came on he would replace Aubameyang up front and Aubameyang would be shifted out to the wing. The best example of this was in the previous north London derby at Wembley earlier this year, when Wenger moved Aubameyang out wide to accommodate Lacazette in the centre, and Lacazette (who, at the time, was still struggling to adapt to English football) promptly missed a great late chance that Aubameyang would surely have taken.
Now, both men are far more interchangeable and that was perfectly displayed in the second half against Spurs yesterday. Lacazette came on a sub and played mainly on the right wing, but he also occasionally took up central positions, not least when he scored the crucial third goal.
The greatest striking partnership at Arsenal in recent decades (and arguably in the entire history of the club) was that of Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp. In many ways, they were the perfect attacking partnership, with the lightning-quick Henry being fed beautifully by Bergkamp, the ultimate No. 10. So great was that pairing that more than a decade after the two players had left Arsenal, Özil and Alexis Sanchez were sometimes described as “the new Bergkamp and Henry”. That was always a nonsensical comparison, especially when there seemed to be little or no empathy or understanding between the two men.
Now, however, it is just possible that Arsenal have actually found their new ‘Bergkamp and Henry’ in Aubameyang and Lacazette. They may both prefer to play centrally but they are also both capable of playing out wide and, most importantly, they can both interchange roles quickly and skilfully, which makes it extremely difficult for defenders to mark them without being dragged out of position.
It is early days under Emery and for all the thrill of beating Tottenham in the first derby match under him, Arsenal’s main ambition this season is to return to the Champions League, either by finishing in the top four in the league or winning the Europa League. That is a far cry from the Premier League titles and league and cup doubles that Henry and Bergkamp won for the club. However, if Aubameyang and Lacazette can maintain the superb form and understanding that they have shown in the first half of this season, and if Emery can add a few outstanding defenders to the outstanding attackers he already possesses, then Arsenal might just be able to mount a serious challenge for the Premier League in the next few seasons.