Action Images via REUTERS/Paul Childs
Alexandre Lacazette must have wondered what he’d got himself in to. Six months before he’d become Arsenal’s record signing and set to be the club’s first choice centre forward, who would easily slot in ahead of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, two of the Premier League’s best creators.
Now he was sitting on the bench as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang - Arsenal’s new record signing- scored on his debut.
What could have become a tricky situation for Arsene Wenger to handle never really materialised, as an injury to Lacazette soon after Aubameyang's arrival helped ease the situation.
Upon his return, the Europa League was in its crunch time, and with Aubameyang cup tied in Europe, a clear and easy division of labour between the Premier League and Europa League ensured, where Lacazette’s importance to the team in what was now their main competition increased.
It also helped that the two strikers seemed to hit it off almost straight away. Speaking recently about Aubameyang, Lacazette said:
I never said Aubameyang's arrival was bad for me, only people in the press said it was bad. I was happy because I knew I could play with him. I didn't see him as a rival more than a teammate, so since the beginning I was happy about his signature. Of course, it's good that we have a good relationship off the pitch. If people are good off the pitch, on the pitch it will be easier to play.
But having a friendly relationship on the pitch is one thing. Whether Arsenal can start two players who are true centre forwards and still play a balanced team tactically is another matter that has been questioned.
Two striker formation
When you have two strikers the most obvious way to use them both is to play a formation that allows for two strikers. One reason some people have claimed to be sceptical of Aubameyang and Lacazette playing together is the claim that they’re too similar as players, but this isn’t really the case.
The Frenchman is a good all-round centre forward. He’s a great finisher because his shot preparation allows him to almost always get his feet in a good position to strike the ball cleanly, and he's disciplined in his shot selection meaning he rarely takes low value shots.
He is also a good overall technician, capable of turning on the ball, dribbling and picking out passes. His work rate in pressing, particularly from behind on midfielders, is also useful. Where he’s lacking is physically. He’s neither particularly fast nor particularly tall or strong. To make matters worse, his stamina isn’t great either, hence why Wenger used to sub him off in games last season.
Action Images via REUTERS/Paul Childs
Aubameyang on the other hand, is the opposite. He’s almost the complete package physically. His speed - both over long distances and over the first few yards - are well-documented, but he’s also tall, strong, agile and durable.
For Dortmund he carried their striker burden, playing almost every game with only the occasional minor injury to show for his work. He is, however, almost a pure poacher. He’s not the type of centre forward to try to drop deep and link the play or create chances for others. He’s also not a brilliant finisher, but makes up for it by getting on the end of more big chances than almost anyone else in Europe.
The numbers demonstrate some of these differences in their games. In the matches where they started as the main centre forward in the Premier League, Lacazette averaged more passes at a better completion percentage (29 at 77%) and more key passes (1.5) per 90 minutes than Aubameyang (20 at 72% and 0.9 respectively), but fewer non-penalty goals (0.47 to Aubameyang’s 0.68).
Lacazette had the better all-round play, but Aubameyang was more likely to put the ball in the back of the net.
If the two were to play as a genuine front two, Lacazette would be the link man, who drops deep to offer himself in possession, while Aubameyang would be the legs for the two, looking to stretch the opposition backline, create space with his runs, and get on the end of balls into the box.
In an ideal world this division of labour would get the most out of Aubameyang, without hindering Lacazette’s goal scoring potential too much. While he’d be less of the focal point, the Frenchman could find it easier to get space in the box alongside another forward the defenders have to pay attention to.
Using one of them wide
The alternative to two up top would be to play one of them on the wing. Wenger usually opted to play Aubameyang from the left when both were on the pitch together, and it’s something Unai Emery has done as well in pre-season.
Aubameyang obviously has the pace to make threatening runs from wide, and with Lacazette capable of good linkup play, the pair could form a partnership not too dissimilar to Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah.
But this still seems an awkward fit for Aubameyang’s strengths and a waste of his talents. He doesn't have the dribbling ability of a true wide man and if he's asked to track back defensively some of his threat on the counterattack is diminished.
The other option is to play Lacazette on the wing. Like with the option of Aubameyang, there are strengths and weakness to playing Lacazette wide, instead of as the focal point of the attack. Since he possesses more technical prowess than Aubameyang, he could be a more ball dominant option, who offers a little of what Alexis Sanchez used to in terms of goal threat and creativity.
It would be a flawed strategy, given he doesn’t have the pace and one-on-one dribbling ability of a true winger, but it could be the best option if Emery feels Aubameyang is the right choice for the centre forward spot.
If either were to play on the wing, then it would clearly work in a somewhat asymmetric shape. The wide forward who is essentially a striker would have a lot of freedom to come inside and attack the box. The other wide player - most likely Ozil or Mkhitaryan - would have to operate much more like a midfielder, regularly getting on the ball and creating chances. Arsenal have many players who can do the latter role well.
The two have shown chemistry off the pitch, but perhaps more encouragingly, have shown hints of a good understanding on the pitch as well. They only played 303 minutes together last season, but still formed an assist-goalscorer combination three times.
Given Arsenal have no natural wide goalscorer - Mkhitaryan is probably the closest, and he’s only once hit double figures for goals in a top five league - it makes sense to try to find room for both of the club’s high level strikers.
It’s hard to say whether it should be in a front two or with one of them wide. Given a true two striker formation has yet to be tried with the pair, it could be worth experimenting with at some point this season, or even within games.