There is no denying it; this summer is perhaps the most important in the recent history of Arsenal Football Club. Before the club’s focus can totally turn towards the summer transfer window, the Gunners must face their most important match since dropping out of the Champions League 3 seasons ago.
A victory against Chelsea on Wednesday night means Arsenal are back in the Champions League, with more money to play with and the best competition in the world to offer prospective players. A loss means another year of hand-wringing and relative austerity while rivals race ahead, with war chests freshly topped up by another year in the top competition.
For the Arsenal players, Wednesday represents the end of their work for the 2018/19 season, but the microscope will immediately be turned on club executives like Raul Sanllehi and Vinai Vinkatesham. Arsenal are still without a Technical Director, but as a recent interview with the duo suggests, this summer has long since been mapped out for the club, even while that vacancy remains.
A pivotal second season
For Unai Emery, such radical changes at the club coinciding with his arrival meant that he was always going to be given a long leash by much of the fanbase in his first season. However, for the club and fans alike, year two will be a much different story.
Contemporaries such as Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp have come into the Premier League and really turned it on in their second season in charge, their teams having more thoroughly adopted their managers’ DNA on the pitch. Many fans expect Emery to have a similar progression in his second season with the club, but it will be up to him to prove that he is of the same calibre manager as his lauded peers.
Arsenal will have a decision to make after next season, as their three-year contract with the Basque head coach contains a break clause after year two. Given the need to determine whether or not Emery is the man to take Arsenal forward, Sanllehi in particular must do whatever is necessary to give him the tools he needs to play his “chameleon” football. Estimates of the summer transfer budget range from £40-100 million, and much of that discrepancy depends on whether or not Arsenal can return to the Champions League with a win on Wednesday.
If the figure ends up being lower than hoped, Raul might have to resort to taking more radical decisions with the squad, potentially even selling off a top player to raise funds in order to bolster elsewhere in the team. But would he dare sell either one of the star strikers, Alexandre Lacazette or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang? And is there any possible way that could result in a better and more cohesive XI on the pitch next season?
A net positive?
What Arsenal have in Aubameyang and Lacazette, two players ostensibly vying for the same position in the team nevertheless becoming nearly inseparable on and off the pitch, is a wonderful thing. The positive vibe they bring to the dressing room and the ability they have to push each other on to new heights has been one of the genuine bright spots of this Arsenal season.
In spite of this, it is an unavoidable fact that the Gunners are a long way off competing for the Premier League title, even with the duo’s sparkling contribution. Given Unai Emery’s career-long inclination towards a one striker formation in 4-2-3-1, is playing with two strikers something that he even prefers as a long term solution, or is it something that he has little choice but to tap into as he has struggled to extract the maximum results from this squad?
To be clear, this is not a suggestion that Arsenal should sell one of their star strikers. Rather, it is a look at what the logic behind such a move might be for a club like Arsenal, desperate to return to a genuinely competitive standing at the sharp end of the Premier League.
An uncommon shape
Once upon a time, two striker formations were the norm in England and in much of Europe. Through the 1990’s, one could almost guarantee that at least one team in a match on English soil would opt for the shape. However, the last two decades have seen the game trend away from two striker shapes, with midfield supremacy becoming a much larger determining factor in a team’s success. Additionally, multi-dimensional wide forwards have become de rigeur in the modern game, as their blend of pace, dribbling, scoring and creativity offer managers far more options when tailoring gameplans to their opponents. The 4-4-2 and its offshoots have given way to 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 particularly for the most successful teams in the world.
Looking around at some of the current best teams in the world, most use a variant of one of these single striker shapes, Liverpool, Manchester City, Barcelona and Real Madrid all use single striker formations, and with the exception of the money-is-no-object City, most don’t even have two top line strikers in the squad, let alone play regularly with two in the team.
Emery’s recent comments about wanting a “chameleon” team, able to adapt to any opponent and style of play, sound great in theory, but it is much more difficult to actually do with the squad as it currently is. More to the point, the squad is not currently constituted in such a way that benefits the use of two strikers in a balanced team.
With a lack of wide players capable of playing two-way football and a central midfield ill-suited to the box to box dynamism necessary from a 4-4-2 midfield (especially with Aaron Ramsey’s impending departure), the Gunners don’t really have a way to construct a balanced XI in that way. With creative number 10 types like Mesut Özil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan in the side, the temptation is to play a diamond in behind the strikers, but as we have seen this season when Emery has tried this method, the team severely lacks attacking width.
This forces an over-reliance in the fullbacks to provide that width, and team defence suffers as a result. Emery tried to counteract this by switching to a back three, but this too has seemed to imbalance the team, at times neither providing the defensive solidity desired or the consistent attacking threat a team with this level of talent should create.
The great “what if”
In many respects, this internal struggle Emery has had this season between choosing his best 11 players and choosing his most balanced and effective team can go a long way towards explaining his erratic team selections and tactics. One can almost feel him struggling against his natural preference towards a single striker shape in order to shoehorn Arsenal’s dynamic duo into the team. So what could the club do, if they indeed were to consider selling one of Lacazette or Aubameyang, in the hope of improving the team in the long run?
Reports so far this transfer window have emerged of an alleged £80m bid for Aubameyang from Real Madrid, as well as of Barcelona’s supposed interest in Lacazette. Assuming the club could recoup close to that £80m for either player, this would give them much more flexibility on the market this summer. The entire transfer outlay last summer was less than £80m in a year when the club had fewer wages coming off the books than they do this summer. That money, especially when combined with the current budget and the club’s renewed dedication to finding good value on the market, starts to look quite an attractive prospect when considering some of the players available for the taking.
With holes at centre back, left back, central midfield and out wide, Arsenal could conceivably turn one of those strikers into two or three starting calibre players at those positions of need. While many might scoff at the prospect of trading in an elite goal scorer for more “lesser” players, that would be enough money to not simply fill holes, but to do so with legitimate talents who could grow into top players in the Premier League. Liverpool fans were initially dismayed at the selling of Philippe Coutinho, but his departure paved the way for top quality arrivals like Virgil van Dijk and Alisson Becker, whose massive transfer fees were made possible by the club’s thrifty decision making.
A leap worth taking
For a fanbase that has grown as frustrated as Arsenal fans have over the last several years, the thought of selling one of the best players in the team is not one many would like to consider. “Why sell one of your best talents when you’re already struggling to compete with the talent levels of your rivals,” some might say, and not without merit. Offloading either player would be a massive risk for Sanllehi to take in just his second window fully in charge of Arsenal’s transfer business. If the club sell one of Lacazette and Aubameyang and whiff on their replacements, it could set the team back for even longer. But sometimes, clubs have to take such risks if they ever hope to break the wheel and make up ground on their rivals.
As it currently stands, Arsenal cannot compete in the same market for the same players with the likes of City and Liverpool. Conventional wisdom will not get Arsenal to the next level. Smart manoeuvring, creative squad building, early talent identification and, yes, a bit of risk are required if the Gunners hope to compete for a title in the near future. Does this mean that the club will pull the trigger if such an attractive offer for Lacazette or Aubameyang materialises? No. But if they do, it will be important for fans to wait and see what the end game is before passing too much judgement.