From the Emirates – Mikel Arteta may not want to admit it, but the forward line he put out to face Sheffield United on Saturday may look quite a lot like the one he’s forced to field next season.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s three-game suspension for a poor foul on Max Meyer could, in the long run, be a blessing in disguise. The Gabon international hasn’t said it in so many words, but he doesn’t look likely to sign a new Arsenal contract before his current deal runs out. That means he’ll have a year left at the Emirates in the summer, which means…a sale.
He’s been the club’s best player since more or less the moment he arrived, which means that – even for an incoming manager like Arteta – it’s hard to experiment with leaving him out against good teams, and therefore hard to figure out what it takes to replace him. With a suspension, the issue is forced. Brilliant.
Arteta went with a leading trio of Nicolas Pepe, Alex Lacazette and Gabriel Martinelli, as expected. Equally predictable was how easy it looked for the Blades’ defenders early on, with no Aubameyang to galvanise the attack.
That Pepe was the most electric of the three despite his struggles since last summer’s £72m move says something about the potency of his teammates, Lacazette once again flattering to deceive as the central front-man and Martinelli looking completely out of sorts on the left. Pepe, at least, contrived to beat his man every now and again.
If this is the personnel group available to Arteta next season, some things need to change. Almost nothing about Lacazette screams ‘number 9’ now (apart from the literal number on his shirt, but you get it), while Martinelli’s game looks being the forward pivot man better. Not a tall man, he still has two inches on Lacazette – and the poacher’s instincts that the Frenchman has shown all too rarely since his arrival from Ligue 1.
When the Brazilian teenager scored, the movement and the finish looked instinctive. The movement into the centre of the box, where you want your number 9 arriving.
Lacazette ended up coming off with 15 minutes to play, replaced by the returning Eddie Nketiah, he of two Championship starts in five months at Leeds. Nketiah then did more than Lacazette had for most of the match, getting in behind his man and setting up a chance in the box (which came to nothing).
Of course, Nketiah isn’t the answer. He weighs about as much as a mouse with hollow bones, and he’s just not ready to be the starting option on a Premier League team yet – certainly not as a centre-forward. That leaves the Gunners, in the absence of Aubameyang, with one under-performing striker, a striker playing as a winger, whatever Nicolas Pepe is, Nketiah and Reiss Nelson.
It has what Arsenal squads have had for the last half a decade: the potential to be something good, given the right senior additions and two years of development. The same could be said of Arteta, who now has one win in his first five Premier League games and for whom the initial excitement is starting to fade just a touch.
The more things change…