As Arsene Wenger’s tenure edged towards its inevitable conclusion, it was no longer clear who held ultimate power at Arsenal when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang arrived in January, and more significantly who signed off on the club-record deal.
Wenger’s team selections insinuated he wasn’t wholly convinced by summer signing Alexandre Lacazette and Alexis Sanchez’s mid-season departure to Manchester United created a void in the squad that another goalscorer needed to fill.
Equally though, it was impossible to ignore how Sven Mislintat had used his Dortmund connections to make his first significant mark as head of recruitment, a role and job title Wenger has always deplored, and how the addition of Aubameyang resulted in an obvious imbalance within the squad.
The same can be said for the fact Wenger’s contract had entered its final few months – regardless of prior achievements and the Frenchman’s status in the club’s history, it seems unlikely the board would have allowed a departing manager to propose let alone complete a club-record transfer of entirely his own design. Surely then, Mislintat was the key driving force behind the Aubameyang deal, even if it was made with Wenger’s approval.
In any case though, the drawbacks for Wenger were only short-term, chiefly the fact the club’s most potent goalscorer couldn’t take part in the only competition Arsenal still had a chance of winning come the second half of last season, the Europa League. For his successor Unai Emery, the consequences are far more long-term with no obvious answer.
The conundrum, of course, is how to fit Lacazette and Aubameyang into the same starting XI without impacting the balance of the team, and the only convincing solution thus far has been to utilise the latter as the most deadly impact substitute in European football right now.
That’s not just a sweeping claim either; statistically speaking, no substitute to score three or more league goals for one club this season has a better minutes-per-goal-involvement ratio than Aubameyang, averaging either a strike or an assist every 12 minutes during his potent outings from the bench against Leicester City and Fulham.
It’s not only a question of how effective Aubameyang has been in that capacity though; it’s also a matter of how a starting role has impacted Arsenal as a collective. While there are some caveats to consider here, particularly that eight is a much wider sample than two, and of those eight appearances two were against Chelsea and Manchester City and not all were as an unorthodox left winger, the statistics are once again incredibly telling.
From the two Premier League matches in which Aubameyang has been utilised as a substitute, on per-game metrics Arsenal have averaged more goals, more shots, less goals conceded and less shots conceded – with the last statistic feeling particularly significant.
It alludes to how Arsenal can not only survive but in fact perform incredibly well with Aubameyang out wide for twenty or thirty-minute spells but struggle to maintain that level for a whole game without leaving themselves too exposed. Inevitably, an imbalance is created that this Arsenal team, which is still some way off having a reliable defensive unit despite notable all-round improvements under Emery, can’t quite cope with.
Up until now, it’s almost fallen into the bracket of that footballing cliché – a nice problem to have. But that’s no doubt been helped by Arsenal’s incredibly comfortable run of fixtures since the 3-2 defeat at Stamford Bridge. The Gunners had already established control of the game during the two instances in which Aubameyang’s been subbed on this season, leaving the Gabon goalscorer to provide the extra cutting edge to get his side over the line.
But Liverpool are a different calibre of opposition, and suddenly the debate over how to best use Aubameyang becomes of far greater significance. On the one hand, managers will want their best players on the pitch against their most important opponents, and Aubameyang and Liverpool fall into those respective categories.
On the other, although Aubameyang and Lacazette have found the firepower thus far to overcome the imbalance the former’s presence out wide seems to create, Arsenal won’t be so fortunate against Liverpool on Saturday.
While Jurgen Klopp’s side haven’t been quite as rampant going forward this season, there’s no better-placed front three in the Premier League to exploit a defence lacking the necessary protection, or a team with a lopsided structure.
And even more so than that, any defensive porousness on the flanks plays straight into Klopp’s game-plan, which obliges the full-backs to push forward and provide the width for Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane to drift inside. That’s not to say Aubameyang is workshy and will refuse to track back, rather that it’s simply not his natural game or what allows him to be at his most effective.
The Liverpool game too, only really represents a microcosm because it’s a problem that will persist at Arsenal throughout this season and possibly even the whole duration of Aubameyang and Lacazette being both at the club together.
Arsenal would surely prefer to have two top-class centre-forwards rather than one, but having such talent vying over the same position comes with its own set of issues that Emery’s already finding tough to solve. Suddenly, what initially seemed like a real master-stroke from Mislintat as he sought to make his impact felt at the club feels like its close to causing more trouble than its worth.
Perhaps it would be controversial, ruthless and unpopular, but both players represent financial value that could be spread out to lesser endowed areas of the squad – at some point, Emery and Mislintat may need to decide which striker is more valuable to them on the pitch, and which is more valuable in the transfer market.
For now though, there’s one immediate question for Emery to answer…