Mikel Arteta is showing that there could be light at the end of Arsenal’s long, dark tunnel.
Once the most feared side in England and arguably Europe, at their best able to combine beauty and brawn like few others to create a winning formula, the Gunners have endured a difficult time over the last 15 years. Their identity became more about style than substance; a soft underbelly replaced their steel and they fell away from the very top. A return is not yet forecast and far from guaranteed.
Fortunately, football is changing; there is less call for characters like Patrick Vieira, Sol Campbell and Tony Adams nowadays. Leadership is no longer purely about intimidation, shouting and hard tackles, but rather leading by example. The beauty of Arsene Wenger’s most successful teams was they did both. Mentality can be more subtle and more organic today. Arsenal have a team that is developing with stronger characters than they have had for a long time. Wenger was criticised for failing to replace Vieira after his departure in 2005, but he actually did it perfectly; just as the Frenchman embodied his generation, Cesc Fabregas did his. He developed into a world class player with an edge under Wenger; the wider problem was that few others did alongside him.
World class is a push for any of Arteta’s current crop, outside of the captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang; but slowly, there has been an improvement in attitude. Hector Bellerin is always open and honest; new signings Gabriel and Willian have added assured leadership and quality, and Aubameyang is buying into Arteta’s vision having signed a new contract. He demands a lot from those around him.
The structure, direction and mutual trust is much clearer under Arteta than it ever was under Wenger’s replacement Unai Emery. Within his first year in charge, he has led to a major trophy, the FA Cup and, on Sunday, won their first away league game at a top six opponent in five years, against Manchester United. It was also their first win at Old Trafford since 2006; Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is having problems, but that is no mean feat.
Victory over Liverpool at the end of last season means they are remaining competitive; that is, at least, a sign of progress.
Aubameyang holds the key in the present and immediate future, but at the age of 31, there has to be a contingency plan. PSV Eindhoven’s former Gunners protege Donyell Malen has long been linked with a return to the Emirates Stadium. But for all of Aubameyang’s importance, Arteta, Emery and even Wenger have struggled to build the team around him. It is testament to the player’s attitude and quality that he has been able to strike up a great relationship with Alexandre Lacazette, who arrived six months prior to him in 2017. At the time of both of their signings, they broke the club record for a transfer deal.
It is easy to see why there were doubts about them working together. They are strikers who come alive in the box and score typical poachers’ goals as a speciality. Aubameyang has more strings to his bow, though, and uses them to play on the left, cut inside and score from out the area, while allowing Lacazette the space to work down the middle. Lacazette hasn’t been performing for weeks; after a strong start to the season, his form has dropped again. Similarly poor runs last season generated speculation that he would be sold; Juventus were said to be keen on the 28-year-old over the summer. Right now, he is peaking in terms of age; perhaps it would be sensible for Arsenal to look at their options.
While Aubameyang has performed well on the left, he is definitely more suited to a central role. He also leads the line better than Lacazette, who tends to come alive in the area. With Willian and Nicolas Pepe, currently the most expensive player in Arsenal’s history, at Arteta’s disposal, there is already potential to make the change.
Even reinvesting any money from a sale by buying a left-sided player may be an option. Aubameyang hasn’t complained about his position, and it is impressive that he remains a consistent candidate for the Golden Boot despite not regularly playing as the main striker. That fact must surely play on Arteta’s mind, as should Lacazette’s comparatively poor scoring record. He has never hit 20 Premier League goals in a season and his tally has progressively decreased, albeit remaining in double figures consistently. Aubameyang has netted 22 in each of his last two campaigns and almost matched Lacazette’s best total of 14 in 2017/18, despite only signing in the January.
Just two goals so far this term have made this season a slow burner for Aubameyang; he hasn’t scored from open play since the opening day against Fulham. But he is Arsenal’s talisman, and it is about time they treated him that way. With Lacazette never really shaking his inconsistency, the reasons to avoid it are dissipating.