One of the more exciting summer transfers in the English Premier League was Arsenal FC acquiring promising Ivorian winger Nicolas Pepe from Ligue 1 side Lille for 72 million pounds.
Pepe stepped into a squad already boasting dangerous attacking options in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, potentially giving Arsenal the tools to be one of the strongest attacking sides in the English Premier League.
Yet through four league matches, the Gunners remain very much a work in progress. Manager Unai Emery has tried a handful of approaches, yet so far hasn’t found the magic formula for unlocking his team’s potential.
First of all, Emery must figure out whether a front line of Pepe, Aubameyang and Lacazette is a viable option. So far, through the first four matches, the attacking trio have started only one game. Some of this can be attributed to easing Pepe into the Premier League. But in their match against Liverpool, Emery chose to prioritize a strong midfield, leaving Lacazette on the bench.
Part of the issue is that Aubameyang is a natural striker, but must be deployed on the wing with Lacazette up front. While Aubameyang is able to contribute out-of-position, it’s worth questioning whether Arsenal are getting the most out of him out wide.
It’s easy to look at Aubameyang, Lacazette and Pepe and dream of Liverpool’s elite attacking trident of Mohammed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino. But in order to make that dream a reality, Emery must figure out not only how to integrate all three players cohesively, but also how to structure the rest of his side to support them.
In the midfield, Dani Ceballos is a crucial addition. In a 4-3-3 formation like Emery deployed against Tottenham in week four, the three man midfield has its hands full both linking up play with the attacking options while shielding the defense. And in this case, a defense without the steadying presence of a Virgil van Dijk.
Ceballos is a box-to-box midfielder who has the creativity to link up with the front three while also being active as a presser and ball-winner. His presence allows a player like Matteo Guendouzi to look upfield more and use his creativity and passing to pick out Aubameyang, Pepe or Lacazette, as he did in setting up the equalizer against Tottenham.
On the back line, Arsenal will have to make the best they can of a sometimes-shaky group of defenders. A center back pairing of David Luiz and Sokratis aren’t going to strike fear into the hearts of Premier League teams, but they each have their strengths, and with proper support should keep them competitive in most matches.
And then there’s Mesut Ozil, almost a forgotten man at this point. It’s hard to imagine a line up featuring both Ozil and the aforementioned attacking three, and it seems likely that the first choice line up sees Ozil on the bench. But that still leaves opportunities for the talented German to contribute, either as a sub or when rotating the squad.
All in all, Arsenal FC have about as much attacking quality as any team in the English Premier League outside of Manchester City. The success or failure of their 2019-2020 campaign will depend on Unai Emery’s ability to sort out the right way to use his attackers, and how he constructs a squad able to best support them while minimizing their defensive liabilities.