From the wreckage of the defeat in Rennes, a new and improved Unai Emery appears to have emerged and with it a new and improved Arsenal. Having made multiple mistakes in the away leg of the last 16 Europa League tie, not least playing Henrikh Mkhitaryan as a right-back in an orthodox back four after Sokratis had been sent off, Emery appears to have settled on a 3-5-2 formation, with wingbacks. Crucially, it allows him to play both his main strikers, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette.
Aubameyang and Lacazette Partnership Necessary for Arsenal
When Aubameyang joined Arsenal in January 2018, it initially appeared that he had been brought in by Arsene Wenger as a direct replacement for Lacazette. It was widely reported that Lacazette, who had been harshly nicknamed “Lack-of-threat” during his first difficult six months in the Premier League after joining Arsenal from Lyon in the summer of 2017, would soon be sold. That was largely because in top-level 21st-century football it was considered almost impossible to play with two strikers because the corresponding loss of a player in central midfield would enable the opposition to dominate that vital area of the pitch.
That feeling was reinforced during Aubameyang’s first year at the club. It was usually the case that either he or Lacazette would start up front and whoever was left on the bench would replace the other late on in a match. However, the difficulties inherent in playing only one of them were really exposed in the first-leg defeat in France, when Lacazette was serving the second match of an initial three-match ban (that was later reduced to two games) for being sent off against BATE Borisov in the preceding round.
Aubameyang is Not a Lone Striker
Against Rennes in that first leg, Aubameyang’s limitations as a lone frontman were fully exposed. He appeared completely incapable of holding on to the ball when it was played up to him, thus making it almost impossible for Arsenal’s midfielders to join him in attack. By contrast, the ability to play as a single striker is probably Lacazette’s forte, as he is both more naturally aggressive than Aubameyang in harrying defenders and more naturally adhesive in retaining the ball and allowing other players to support him in attack.
Arsenal finished the game in Rennes without a recognised frontman after the utterly ineffective Aubameyang had been replaced by Aaron Ramsey (who, lacking pace, is the falsest of “false nines”). After the ignominy of that 3-1 defeat, Emery bravely rethought his formation for the two following matches, against Manchester United in the Premier League and then the return match against Rennes in the Europa League. In fact, he rethought it so radically that there was considerable surprise when Arsenal’s starting XI was revealed before the Manchester United match, as Emery had not only paired his two strikers up front but dared to play Mesut Özil behind them as a No.10.
3-5-2 Worked Against United and Rennes
That frontline is certainly an attacking formation, but it was made possible by the changes behind it. In particular, Emery adopted a three-man central defence against United, which was supported by wingbacks in the form of Sead Kolasinac and Ainsley Maitland-Niles, neither of whom had started the game against Rennes.
It is undeniable that Arsenal rode their luck against United, and that if Romelu Lukaku had taken even one of his many chances the game might have been different. As it was, however, Arsenal’s defensive structure just about held out, and Aubameyang and Lacazette ably supported it. Not only did they both persistently harry and hassle Manchester United defenders and midfielders but they also remained a permanent attacking threat throughout the game, culminating in Aubameyang winning (and then scoring) the penalty that clinched the victory. And even more astonishing than the two goals that Arsenal scored were the zero goals they conceded, for one of the very few times this season.
The formation that defeated United worked so well that Emery wisely retained it for the second leg of the Europa League tie against Rennes. Once again, it largely worked. Arsenal got two quick goals to level the tie early on, one scored by Aubameyang and the other made by him for Ainsley Maitland-Niles. Then, Aubameyang scored a third in the second half when Kolasinac (who is a far better wingback than he is a fullback) crossed beautifully for him to tap in his second goal.
Arsenal’s defence and defensive midfielders managed to resist Rennes for the rest of the match reasonably well, barring a few late mazy dribbles by Hatem Ben Arfa. So, almost unbelievably given their defensive travails this season, Arsenal managed to keep a second successive clean sheet.
Now for the Away Form
The task now for Emery is to take this impressive home form and translate it into away form that is at least acceptable. Arsenal have more than a fortnight’s break before their next match, at home to Newcastle in the Premier League on Monday 1 April. However, they then have several potentially difficult away games domestically, not least at Wolverhampton, a date for which has not yet been set because of Wolves’ FA Cup commitments. And now that they have been drawn in the Europa League quarterfinals against Napoli, Arsenal will face a difficult second leg away in the heel of Italy.
However, with the 3-5-2 formation, there is at least a chance that Arsenal’s away-day troubles of recent seasons (in both the Premier League and the Europa League) might come to an end. Quite simply, a 3-5-2 formation allows Emery to get as many of his best players on the pitch as possible, while also shoring up the defence. The extra centre-back reduces the chances of any one centre-back being isolated and beaten for pace; the wingbacks, Kolasinac and Maitland-Niles, provide a real attacking threat (they got an assist and a goal respectively against Rennes); Özil gets to play as a No.10, which is by far his best position as it maximises his assist-making ability and minimises his defensive duties; and Aubameyang and Lacazette get to play together, which fully utilises their two very different skillsets (Aubameyang’s finishing ability and Lacazette’s hold-up play).
Twin Strikers for the Twin Challenges Ahead
It seems likely, therefore, that Emery will continue to use his twin spearheads for the twin challenges that lie ahead: staying in the Premier League top four for the rest of the season; and trying to win the Europa League. Both routes offer the promise of Champions League qualification and so both routes must be followed equally assiduously. However, if Emery can somehow manage to achieve both, making the top four again and winning the European trophy that eluded Arsene Wenger in his 22 years at the club, then he will truly have had a successful first season at Arsenal.
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