COMMENT By Seye Omidiora Follow on Twitter
If the magnitude of the task facing Unai Emery at Arsenal wasn’t widely acknowledged going into the season, the Gunners’ successive league defeats at the start of the campaign represented a wake-up call for the Spaniard.
The 2-0 opening day defeat at home to champions Manchester City preceded the entertaining 3-2 loss against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in gameweek two, which saw the North London club already playing catch up early on.
The aforementioned loses, which saw Emery hold the unwanted record of becoming the first Arsenal manager since 1986 (Steve Burtenshaw) to lose his first two games as Gunners boss probably prompted the Spaniard’s epiphany, and he opted to play Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in tandem with Alexandre Lacazette in attack.
Granted, the former Paris-Saint Germain manager has sought to do things differently from Arsene Wenger’s regime, but he probably would’ve been served better by keeping the one thing that seemed to offer a fair bit of optimism in the Frenchman’s last few months from the off – the blossoming partnership of the two frontmen.
The change from Emery was birthed in gameweek three, against West Ham United at Emirates Stadium.
Having seen the sides go in level at the break, the former PSG boss withdrew the somewhat ineffectual Alex Iwobi for Lacazette, and Arsenal went on to win 3-1.
Neither of the pair scored on the day, but it set the wheels in motion for their ongoing winning run of six in all competitions, with four coming in the league.
In the games that have followed that London derby triumph over the Hammers, Aubameyang has gone on to score two goals in three games, the first in a 3-2 win at Cardiff City (which came after great inter-play with Lacazette), before scoring again in last week’s 2-0 win over Everton on home turf.
He also netted for Gabon in their 1-1 draw against Burundi during the Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers.
It is worth noting that the forward’s pair of goals have now taken his tally since switching clubs in January to 12 goals in 19 games. When you take into account he didn’t have time to fully integrate into the side before scoring 10 in his first 13 games, you wonder what impact he could have had at Arsenal if he'd signed at the beginning of last season, rather than halfway through the campaign.
Maybe the English giants would have ended the year in the top four, or even won the Europa League to mark Wenger's departure.
Admittedly, that’s all speculation, but it only reveals just how much of an impact the Gabon international has had since his move to the capital.
It should be pointed out that irrespective of the fact that Aubameyang and Lacazette are utilized together; Emery hasn’t switched his tactic from the 4-2-3-1 he used at the start of the season. The Gabon international has largely been deployed on the left, while the Frenchman operates as the lone forward.
Conversely, it should also be noted that while ‘Auba’ may be deployed on the left, he doesn’t operate as an orthodox winger, but mostly tucks in and plays closer to the his strike partner, which further helps their link up on the pitch. Playing him away from the centre of pitch makes sense too, given most sides Arsenal face don’t give enough space to run in behind, which sometimes renders his pace ineffective.
It’s also mostly congested in central areas anyway, and the Gabon international’s ability to play with teammates isn’t quite as good as Lacazette’s – who's more effective at linking the play. Auba is the more-prolific goalscorer, though, and the combination of both players might well be Arsenal’s trump card this season.
For Emery, the enormity of his job of leading the London club through their post-Wenger transition has arguably been understated in some sections.
He’s taken over a squad that lacks balance, and one that perhaps only the departed Frenchman can get the best out of.
The title may be out of reach given the Gunners’ ongoing transition – as well as City and Liverpool being a class apart from the chasing pack – but you feel that breaking into the top four, after a two-year absence, is the minimum requirement this season.
Given the defensive fragility that’s been apparent in the Arsenal setup early on, coupled with the Spaniard’s previous assertion that he’ll “rather win games 5-4 than 1-0”, you feel the North Londoners will rely on the sheer number of goals from Aubameyang, and to a lesser extent Lacazette, if they’re to achieve their objectives.
After six games, they’re joint-fourth scorers with 12 (the same as Tottenham Hotspur), averaging exactly two goals a game.
That mean should be higher but for missed opportunities, especially against Chelsea – a game in which Auba was a main culprit. If there’s any criticism to be leveled at his door, it’s definitely his lack of goals against the so-called big sides.
The former Dortmund marksman has failed to hit the back of the net in five games against Spurs, City (twice), Manchester United and Chelsea. Excluding his missed chances in the most-recent derby against Maurizio Sarri’s side, there have been wasted opportunities against United and City (when he missed a penalty), and the marksman risks developing a profile as a flat-track bully if his scoreless run against the top sides continues.
Emery’s side are presumably in a four-way battle for the remaining two slots in the UCL, assuming City and Liverpool claim two.
Sarri’s side have surprisingly started well, but you sense they’ll encounter their fair bit of delayed teething problems as the season progresses, Spurs have grappled with their relocation problems, and can’t seem to get Harry Kane (goalscoring numbers aside) playing as well as he was before his injury in March, while Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United seem to be all over the place.
Despite their own problems, this year represents a major opening for the Gunners to secure a return to Europe's premier club competition.
Emery faces a tough task of getting results while ensuring a smooth transition, and he’ll need his most prolific frontman to deliver the goods if he’s to achieve his main objective – which is to guide the North London side to a return to Europe’s most prestigious competition after a two-year absence.