Few managers possess a squad with the sort of quality that forces Pep Guardiola into a rethink. The Manchester City head coach has so much talent at his own disposal that devising a game plan based on nullifying an opponent’s strengths as opposed to capitalising on their weaknesses often feels a little self-defeating.
Yet there the Spaniard was, explaining the thought process behind using Fernandinho at centre-half to facilitate City’s seamless switch between a back three and back four in and out of possession against Arsenal earlier this month.
“We didn’t want to leave two central defenders against Lacazette and Aubameyang, one against one,” he said, adding that it was “too risky” to take the chance of being outnumbered by a pair of elite forwards. And the plan worked: Arsenal’s two strikers had one shot and created one chance between them in a 3-1 defeat.
They have not started together since, and that might soon become the norm. Aubameyang was ill for the 2-1 win over Huddersfield, and a second-half substitution in the 1-0 defeat to BATE, in which Lacazette was sent off and suspended for the second-leg win. The Frenchman atoned for that red card with a starring role in Sunday’s victory over Southampton.
Lacazette was excellent at the Emirates, turning in Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s wayward volley to open the scoring before playing a key part in the second by harrying and hassling Dale Stephens and panicking Saints into giving the ball away. Angus Gunn’s clearance was poor, Alex Iwobi’s cross was deflected and Mkhitaryan’s finish was clinical.
It was justification not only for striker but for manager. Emery’s selection, as it is before every game, was derided by those who have long decided on the players they adore and the ones they admonish. The logic behind benching Aubameyang was sound: this was the first of six games in 18 days for Arsenal, two of which are against Tottenham and Manchester United. With Lacazette banned for both Europa League legs against Rennes, rotation was plain common sense.
The obvious temptation is to play both Lacazette and Aubameyang at the same time at all times. But it is time to start thinking outside the 18-yard box and about what’s best for Arsenal as a whole.
The problem is that players of Lacazette and Aubameyang’s calibre demand to play, if not in their words but their actions. To bench either is seen as a declaration that one is better than the other, or perhaps that Arsenal are adopting a more defensive approach. In reality, it is just good management.
Arsenal’s first half against Southampton was one of their best attacking performances of the season, despite one of their best attacking players watching on from the bench. Mkhitaryan, for all he has seemed the odd one out at times, offers a much greater balance on the right-hand side to a formerly lopsided frontline.
With Iwobi on the other flank and Aaron Ramsey behind Lacazette, the objective was clearly to work hard on and off the ball. It paid the ultimate dividends with the second goal, which might not have been possible had Aubameyang been furthest forward.
By the time the Gabon international was introduced in the 74th minute, Southampton were already beaten. Aubameyang unfortunately struggled to do much with his quarter of an hour, but if leaving either him or Lacazette on the bench is to become a regular occurrence, the flipside is that Arsenal always have a fantastic option to introduce if needed.
Aubameyang is a phenomenal finisher with lacklustre build-up play, while Lacazette links well and is better overall but untrustworthy in front of goal. So to pair the former with a creator such as Mesut Ozil and the latter with a runner and willing worker like Ramsey is an unconventional but potentially brilliant approach to having such a vast array of attacking talent.
Those are combinations that might seem less threatening than Lacazette and Aubameyang in tandem, but they get the best out of both while keeping them fresh. By splitting the “brothers” up, Arsenal could create a healthy sibling rivalry.