Pushed Wide: How Can Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan Fit in a Top-Heavy Arsenal?


So, it’s finally happened. As the Premier League January transfer window slams shut, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang steps into the Arsenal squad. By now, the Gooners will have noted his shirt number with intrigue. The iconic #14, which Thierry Henry wore during his illustrious career with Arsenal, will now be donned by the Gabonese forward. Was it chosen on purpose? Maybe. Most fans, meanwhile, will hope that he will strive to live up to that number’s glory, if not the number of pounds he arrived for.

Much like Henry, Aubameyang cut his teeth in Ligue 1. Both players developed reputations as rapid and ruthless forwards, possessing a keen eye for goal whilst retaining the ability to beat defenders with pace and flair. Aubameyang, as Henry once did, typically operates in a central position but can also feature out on the wing: many Arsenal fans will remember the Frenchman’s uncanny ability to drift in from the left flank, only to fire in an absolute screamer. Aubameyang spent his career at St-Étienne shifting between wide and central roles, replicated at Borussia Dortmund until Robert Lewandowski’s transfer in 2014. Since, the Gabonese international has starred confidently as Dortmund’s main striker, netting 31 goals in 32 games last season, almost all from inside the penalty box, as this Opta map highlights:

With fellow ex-Dortmund midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan brought in as part of the Alexis Sánchez deal, Arsenal now have two players familiar with each other: in the Armenian they have one who can create and one who can score in Aubameyang, or vice versa when required. Underneath the headlines, their signings smack of a hopeful attempt to alleviate Sánchez’s absence, his talismanic presence once required to provide both creative and scoring aspects to Arsenal’s game.

At the same time, Arsène Wenger also has Mesut Özil and Alexandre Lacazette at his disposal, seemingly spoiled for choice in his options. Yet a squad full of stars begs the question: how will they all fit in? Can they?

It’s perhaps worth noting that, since the start of 2018, Arsenal have varied between a 3-4-2-1 or a 4-3-3 in their seven matches. In six of those, Alexandre Lacazette has started as the main striker with Özil either on his right flank or slightly behind, the German always mercurial and usually found drifting to the centre to deliver a killer pass. This playmaker role is the one, of course, that Özil favours; in an Instagram post at the start of this season, he claimed: ‘I’m better as a “Number 10”. When playing in the centre I can control the game.’ With Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang, perhaps Özil will be able to drop back into this central attacking role, free to move behind the front three.

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If Wenger persists with a 4-3-3, then only one man may start as a centre-forward. Lacazette has enjoyed being the sole striker, but with Aubameyang’s arrival, this will be challenged. Whilst both men possess a prowess for finding the ball in the box, they also maintain the pace to play out wide if necessary. Wenger has a choice to make which may, ultimately, negate one of his star forwards’ abilities in favour of another.

Who will take precedence in the centre? Lacazette seems to be a familiar presence in the middle, scoring one goal since the start of the year. Aubameyang, as noted, can play on the right-wing but, as the stats show, is far deadlier in the centre; if he does get pushed wide in favour of Lacazette, will Mkhitaryan play on the opposing, and less familiar, left flank, both new lads operating as inverted wingers with very separate roles to play? The Armenian featured in Arsenal’s woeful defeat at Swansea on Tuesday, playing the last thirty minutes mostly in left midfield but also drifting through the centre, swapping frequently Özil.

In contrast, will Aubameyang or even yet Lacazette, find themselves figured out on the left instead? As noted, both men have played wide in their earlier days, but grew comfortable playing as sole strikers on the continent. A 4-4-2 remains unlikely, at least as a starting formation, so one would be required to dribble in from the flank and look to pass or shoot. All this, of course, does not even consider if Wenger ignores Özil’s fervent wishes and opts to keep him out on the wing, in favour of Mkhitaryan in midfield; although, Wenger’s claims that Özil is his ‘technical leader’ is ambiguous, may hint at him taking a dominant, central role.

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Meanwhile, as Ritesh Gogineni noted back in September, Arsenal’s three-at-the-back formation is often awkward and stifling and certainly does not afford Wenger to chance to utilise his players’ abilities. A trio of one central striker and two trequartistas behind him means one of Wenger’s new ‘Fab Four’ will ultimately miss out, even if this does solve a problem of how to make them all start. Arguably, any player worth his salt, particularly a forward, should be versatile; but when one player is so evidently adept in a certain role, common sense says to play him there.

It seems as if Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan were signed to plug the giant hole left by Sánchez; the question remains: can they all fit in there? With Aubameyang and Lacazette, and then with Mkhitaryan and Özil, Wenger has two pairs of similarly-equipped players, all with incredible ability, but ultimately offering parallel attributes that may see them crossing and re-crossing each other throughout a game. Watching Arsenal in action, it’s clear they work hard in creating overloads, with players moving constantly and staying tight together to create passing options, prompting the familiar adage that they always try and walk it in.

Whilst Arsenal’s attacking line does look top-heavy, particularly when considering the defensive issues which linger behind them, perhaps there will be a way to make it all gel. Perhaps we’ll only see three of them at a time, the other rested for the next game; but with their accumulated worth of around £185 million, and the goals set to dry up even more without Sánchez or Giroud, can Wenger afford not to play all of them together?

With Aubameyang unlikely to play Saturday’s Everton match, fans will have to wait to see Arsenal’s ‘Fab Four’ as an entire unit. Amid the speculation, only Wenger knows what’s in stock for Arsenal’s new and- hopefully- improved attack. But with the Gunners on the fringe of the top six, the Frenchman must act to balance it out if he wants to climb any higher this season.

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