Arsenal: Two Steps Forward One Step Back?

News broke on Thursday that Alexandre Lacazaette’s ongoing ankle injury will keep him out until October. Just as Arsenal were welcoming the return of Hector Bellerin, Rob Holding, and Kieran Tierney, arguably their best attacker is now out of action as a congested schedule looms ahead.

Arsenal have gotten off to decent start in the Premier League. Two consecutive wins to start the campaign were quickly followed by a humbling defeat 3-1 to Liverpool. A draw at home to Tottenham capped of the Gunner’s opening weeks of the season. There was considerable work that needed to be done heading into the new campaign, but none of that work was required in attack. Even with the absence of Lacazette, Arsenal supporters should remain positive about the team’s chances until his return.

Arsenal’s greatest concern heading into the season was their defense, and thankfully the return of some vital pieces might tighten up some of those gaps already exploited by previous opposition. Both Bellerin and Tierney should slot right into the starting eleven once they get up to match fitness. There is some debate, however, as to whether Rob Holding should replace David Luiz, Sokratis, or neither.

The exciting possibility that at least two of Arsenal’s key defensive pieces will return shortly only exacerbates the absence of Alexandre Lacazette in attack. The trio of Pierre Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette, and Nicolas Pepe was just starting to come into its own. The loss of a critical component is made worse by the fact that this piece is the heart and soul of the attack.

Aubameyang has the pace and Pepe has the flair but Lacazette was the player that held them all in continuity. He could hold the ball up by dropping deeper into midfield to swing it out to either winger. He was also the poacher in the box that could put crosses and corners into the back of the net. He was the middle spear of a trident.

None of this is to say that Aubameyang or Pepe can’t fill Lacazette’s shoes. They can. The problem lies in the further delay of the trio’s chemistry. Four weeks is not long enough for three pivotal attackers to develop the indirect communication that can make them so lethal against the opposition. All the training in the world can not develop the intuition that only comes with in game experience.

Arsenal also lack a natural striker on the bench. Eddie Nketiah was reportedly asked to remain at the club by Unai Emery heading into the season. The young striker, however, felt it imperative that he obtained consistent first team play, and he has found exactly that as well as immediate success with Championship side Leeds. Arsenal will instead require the talents of wingers, which will likely move Aubameyang into the central striking role.

Aubameyang’s goal scoring ability and pace make him an incredible striker, but he is a vastly different player with a different set of skills than Alexandre Lacazette. Unai Emery will need to adapt the entire attack’s style of play. Aubameyang will look to move behind the defenders rather than coming towards the ball, and is unable to hold up play when progress slows. While it could be argued that Arsenal were not getting the best out of Aubameyang out wide, it was the only way to work all three attackers into the same side.

The obvious replacement for Lacazette will need to be Reiss Nelson. He will likely fill Aubameyang’s previous role with better success for all involved. His final ball may need some work but his vision and on ball movement can open up space for others around him, particularly Aubameyang. Joe Willock can play out wide but he has shown more promise as an advanced midfielder.

Lacazette’s injury may also bring Dani Ceballos or Mesut Ozil, if he can ever get back into the team, into more advanced positions. Since Aubameyang will live on the offside line most of the time, Ceballos or Ozil can have more freedom to work in the middle of the pitch feeding balls behind the defenders to any one of the three attackers. Pepe and Nelson can also cut inside to pick up balls from Arsenal’s attacking midfielder and push forward.

The loss of Lacazette is disheartening. Thankfully, Arsenal’s schedule is rather favorable for the next month with the only arduous test against Manchester United at Old Trafford. Otherwise Arsenal play four home games in all competitions against Aston Villa, Nottingham Forrest in the League Cup, Belgium side Standard Liege in the Europa League, and Bournemouth. Their two upcoming away fixtures are no easy task, but there is no better time to face Watford away. The Gunner’s first Europa League match away to Eintracht Frankfurt will prove challenging but Arsenal will be favored to win.

There is never a good time to lose your star striker. Especially one with the talents of Alexandre Lacazette. Yet, Arsenal supporters as well as Unai Emery can find some solace knowing that crucial defensive pieces are returning from injury in the near future. Arsenal’s defense was always going to be the major question mark entering the new Premier League season, and Arsenal clearly have the talent to score goals. That sentiment may be somewhat mitigated by Lacazette’s injury, but there is still plenty of creativity and fire power to get the job done.

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