Alexandre Lacazette is a curious striker to analyse as he provides more to the Arsenal attack than goals. His hold up play has been essential to getting the best out of Gabriel Martinelli, Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka in recent months, and his record of seven assists since taking over the club captaincy on December 6 is better than anyone else in the Premier League during that time period. In games where he has started the Gunners have averaged 1.74 goals as opposed to just 1.1 in matches where he has come off the bench or not been involved.
On top of that Lacazette is an experienced leader in the young Arsenal dressing room, and his workrate and energy has drawn specific praise from Mikel Arteta despite his profligacy in front of goal. “When I see our striker in the 85th minute, chasing a full-back in the corner flag, winning the ball back, playing, going, fighting, missing one chance, missing two chances, going again, what can I do?” the Spaniard said after Lacazette’s involvement in the last gasp victory over Wolves in February.
“I can only praise him and try to help him as much as possible and give him support.” As the crunch end of the season approaches and with Champions League qualification at stake for the first time in half a decade, the question now has to be asked, is this enough?
With just one goal in their last three matches, the Gunners’ problems up top have been brought into even sharper focus. It is now 19 hours and 23 minutes since Lacazette scored from open play, and it is not as if the Frenchman has not had chances to find the back of the net. As per Orbinho the Frenchman has the worst goals to xG ratio in the whole of the Premier League this season, netting five fewer times than he should have done.
This is a real problem for Arsenal that only looks set to get worse. Their toothlessness in attack recently has been offset by a tremendous defensive record that has helped secure vital points in the race for a top four finish. However, with Takehiro Tomiyasu and Kieran Tierney facing lengthy spells on the sidelines that platform may no longer be so reliable between now and the end of the season, particularly if Monday’s 3-0 defeat to Crystal Palace is anything to go by.
What’s not working for Lacazette
Before analysing any changes to the attack it’s worth taking a look at what Alexandre Lacazette has done right when he’s been playing centre forward for Arsenal recently. When it comes to the No.9 role, Mikel Arteta has shown himself to be more partial to a striker who drops deep to link and facilitate the play of the team, rather than simply having a penalty box poacher to finish off chances.
“As a centre forward I try to be involved more in the game because the coach is expecting from our number nine to give some solutions to play during the game,” said former Gunners central striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang when describing his former manager’s demands for those in the centre of his attack during a press conference last year. The Gabon international ended up leaving to join Barcelona due to a falling out with his manager over disciplinary issues, but it’s easy to suspect that his inability to fulfil these demands effectively played a part in his exit.
This is generally why the team looked better when Lacazette took over as the centre forward this season. Take this example from the Gunners win over West Ham in December. Lacazette drops deep to receive the ball of Gabriel, dragging Craig Dawson out of the Hammers’ central defence with him.
The Frenchman then turns and plays a ball through to Gabriel Martinelli who runs into the space vacated by Dawson, and goes on to finish past Lukasz Fabianski, putting them on course for a vital three points against a rival for Champions League qualification.
Crucial to this goal though is the fact that Lacazette is given time in the middle of the pitch to turn and pick a pass. It’s excellent movement in between the defence and midfield that the Frenchman deserves credit for, but it’s also something that other teams have picked up on recently. When asked about the tactics deployed by Crystal Palace during Monday night’s match at Selhurst Park, Patrick Vieira revealed that stopping Arsenal’s number nine was a key part of his side’s game plan.
“Today was about defending well as a team, putting pressure on the centre-backs, putting pressure on the full-backs to not allow them to find those players in between the line because if there is a space between the line, we will be in trouble,” the Frenchman said. “Any time that they managed to find those players we always had one of our back four who jumped out and try to put pressure, especially on Lacazette.”
This tactic was plain to see each time Arsenal tried to play the ball forward to Lacazette. Take this instance from the first half where the Frenchman (in the right side of the screen grab) drops comfortably deeper than the centre circle in his own half to receive the ball off Ben White.
Instead of being given the time to turn and pick out a pass like he was against West Ham though Lacazette is closely tracked by Palace centre-back Marc Guehi, who has been given license by his manager to follow the Arsenal forward well into his own half. Wilfried Zaha also joins into apply pressure as the Eagles’ quickly swarm Lacazette who eventually concedes possession to Jeffrey Schlupp.
Without this space to turn and effect play, one of Lacazette’s primary functions in the Arsenal team has been rendered impossible. With teams now seemingly taking steps to nullify him as a facilitative threat, you do have to question what exactly he is bringing to the Arsenal attack. As we’ve already established it certainly isn’t goals right now, and with this in mind perhaps it’s time for Arteta to take a look at some alternative solutions up top.
Martinelli up front
Perhaps the most obvious example is to give Gabriel Martinelli a go through the middle. The Brazilian broke into the Arsenal team as a striker and although Mikel Arteta has largely been reluctant to use him in that position he has previously stated a desire to develop him as number nine.
Despite playing most of recent football on the left wing Martinelli certainly has a lot of the qualities Arteta would like in a centre forward. The 20-year-old is a good enough finisher as his xG differential of +0.29 suggests (as per understat ), and he also possesses the mobility that Lacazette often lacks to keep pace with the rest of the Gunners attack. On top of that he has bulked considerably in recent months, putting on seven or eight kilos without losing any of his pace, which would appear to give him all the natural assets required to be an elite central striker.
However, one thing that has been lacking from his game in the limited opportunities he’s had to play up front is a bit of composure to select the right passing opportunities when he tries to link play. An example of this was on display during last season’s 3-1 win over West Brom at the Emirates Stadium. In the picture below he drops deep to receive the ball from Mohamed Elneny, luring Semi Ajayi forward in a similar manner to what we saw from Lacazette against West Ham.
However, instead of taking time to control the ball and turn before playing it to his erstwhile teammate Willian who is running beyond him, the 20-year-old tries to flick the ball immediately to his compatriot. The former Chelsea man isn’t ready to receive the pass yet and Arsenal end up losing possession and spurning a potential goalscoring opportunity.
This is perhaps why Arteta has been hesitant to use Martinelli through the middle despite Lacazette’s poor goalscoring form in recent matches. However, at the time the Spaniard did predict that this rawness in the final third is something that would eventually be ironed out from the youngster’s game if he followed the right development paths.
“I’m asking you to be patient because we have a lot of players at 19 and 20 years old,” Arteta said. “When you compare that with a lot of Premier League clubs at the top end it’s not common. Gabi’s having the right path, the right development, he’s got an incredible attitude and talent and has got all the future in front of him. What we have to do is to manage that, try to give him the right amount of minutes, the right games for him to develop to continue to get better.”
It has been nearly a year since that match against West Brom and by Arteta’s own admission Martinelli’s game has come on a lot in that time. “His overall understanding of the game is getting much better,” the Spaniard said after the aforementioned win over West Ham. “He’s able to put some gears into his play. Sometimes he’s still doing everything at 100 miles per hour but the energy and quality he shows at times is top.”
With more first team minutes under his belt and more rounded game Martinelli is certainly an option for Arteta as he looks to find ways to evolve his attack in the closing stages of the season.
Emile Smith Rowe as a false nine
Probably the most exciting option on this list is to try playing Emile Smith Rowe as a ‘false nine.’ The England international is Arsenal’s joint top scorer this season and became the first academy graduate since Cesc Fabregas to hit double figures in a season when he netted against Brentford in February. After that game Mikel Arteta revealed he thinks the Hale Ender has what it takes to make it up top.
“I think he can play in four positions,” said the Spaniard. “He can play as a left winger, a left attacking midfielder, a right attacking midfielder and he can play as a nine, very, very well I think.”
Smith Rowe has certainly proved his goalscoring capabilities this season, but the question marks remain about his ability to link play as well as a Lacazette. Unfortunately the sample size for analysis is even smaller than with Martinelli as the 21-year-old has only ever played up front for Arsenal once in there 2-1 defeat to Villarreal in the Europa League semi final first leg last season.
That data pool is reduced even further by the fact that Dani Ceballos was sent off in the second half of that game making a fair analysis pretty tough, but some of the signs relating to Smith Rowe’s link up play in the early exchanges of the match are pretty positive. In the image below from the very first minute against Unai Emery’s side, the Hale Ender can be seen dropping deep into a central area to receive the ball from Ceballos.
He then quickly turns and sees that Raul Albiol is stepping out of defence to try and press him. As an expert at maintaining his composure in tight spaces Smith Rowe is able to look up despite the incoming pressure and play a ball throw to Nicolas Pepe down the left wing in a manner that is reminiscent of Lacazette’s assist for Martinelli against West Ham earlier in this piece.
The big question over Smith Rowe though is over whether he is physically capable of handling the close attention he would get from centre backs as a false nine on a regular basis. The 21-year-old has struggled with injuries throughout most of 2022 as his body begins to adapt to the rigours of regular Premier League football, and playing him through the middle could cause even more stress.
On top of that it was also interesting to note that he has not been working on playing as a false nine on the training ground at London Colney. “That’s interesting…” the England international said when asked about his manager’s comments about the positions he’s capable of playing. “I tried it last season and it didn’t really work, I can’t lie. I’ll play anywhere that the manager wants me, but yeah – it’s definitely a tough position!” When asked specifically if they’d been working on the role, Smith Rowe said: “Not as much as people think. In terms of my positioning and where I can be to help the team, definitely, but not so much as a number nine.”