Assumption #1: Unai Emery doesn’t favor using a player in the hole.
Assumption #2: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on the left-wing is a waste.
CONCLUSION: Play 4-4-2!
It sounds easy and is perhaps a bit simplistic but it’s also very fascinating and could solve some of our problems, especially up high on the pitch.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s best position is centre-forward, where his runs in behind are often lethal for our opponents; sticking him wide limits him more then it benefits the team as he’s not a particularly inspired dribbler and doesn’t possess the skills and trickery of a traditional winger.
Given his mentality and physical attributes, the Gabonese would still score some goals from the left-wing position and create some for his teammates but he wouldn’t play at this best.
The problem with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang spear-heading our front line will be the complete lack of participation to the build-up, with the former Borussia Dortmund forward not very suited to playing with his back at the goal and bringing teammates into the play.
Enter Alexandre Lacazette.
The Frenchman is one of the most complete strikers in Europe and is excellent at creating the cohesion and connectivity between midfield and attack, something that we have sorely missed in the last few games, when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was leading our attacking line.
With him on the pitch, we have the focal point that a flat 4-3-3 formation requires in order to work, a man who could hold onto the ball, combine with onrushing teammates and run into the box to finish the move; without a striker of his profile, it is very difficult for us to use the central area in the final third, especially as Unai Emery doesn’t use a typical attacking midfielder.
Alexandre Lacazette would drop in the half-space behind Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and help the team move upwards, while the Gabonese runs in behind and loses his markers.
Despite being a composed finisher, though, Alexandre Lacazette doesn’t possess the same instinct and positioning of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, whose runs and movement in the box are unparalleled, so playing him centrally would mean losing some goals, inevitably.
It’s a complex situation because Unai Emery has two wonderful strikers, who excel in a central position but have very distinct profiles: playing one or the other completely changes the team and the way we need to play to make the most of each.
Ideally you would like to play both but the solution adopted so far is to push Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang wide to accommodate Alexandre Lacazette through the middle – which is wrong and ineffective.
To make the most of our wonderful strikers, you need to play them both through the middle.
Playing two strikers up front became outdated at some point, in favor of a plethora of false-nines, of fluid systems and so on; the old-fashioned 4-4-2 became obsolete once Barcelona started dominating European football with their 4-3-3 formation and their specific style.
Maybe it is time to make it popular again, especially if you don’t like playing an advanced midfielder to connect the dots and rely on your full-backs and wide players to create goal-scoring situations.
We all know that Mesut Özil is no longer in Unai Emery’s plans and, with Alex Iwobi sold and Henrikh Mkhitaryan loaned, we do not have a proper number ten anymore; instead, we have some very athletic and powerful box-to-box midfielders: we have Mattéo Guendouzi, Dani Ceballos, Joe Willock and Ainsley Maitland-Niles who can breeze from one end of the pitch to another, driving the ball forward or hounding opponents to win the ball back.
The main issue here would be to find the right balance in midfield and avoid being too exposed if we lose possession of the ball: if the plan is to push the full-back high in the final third, to have the winger cutting-in to combine with the strikers and to have a central midfielder make late runs in the box, then you definitely want someone in there to cover for that, a more defensive-minded midfielder who could sit back and has the physical attributes to cover ground and get stuck in to win the ball back.
Enter Lucas Torreira.
His name is the first that springs to mind when thinking of a dynamic defensive midfielder who could make things work: he has the grit, the energy and the defensive ability to close opponents down, sniff away counter attacking situations but also recycle the ball effectively, when called upon.
Other teammates could fill in, too, like Mattéo Guendouzi – whose defensive awareness is improving – Joe Willock or even Ainsley Maitland-Niles, whose physicality and tackling ability are outstanding.
One name that definitely does NOT come to mind is Granit Xhaka.
The Swiss international doesn’t have the pace, stamina or tackling ability to fill either role and would be totally out of place in this system.
Would Unai Emery contemplate the possibility to drop his freshly-appointed captain? I don’t think so, unfortunately, but if forced to do so he might never have a chance to put him back in the starting XI.
Perhaps a yellow card is all we need for this to happen…
We covered the attacking line, we covered central midfield and now it’s all about the wingers.
Last season we didn’t have any proper winger and it showed: Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Alex Iwobi played there, Danny Welbeck did so but none was the out-and-out winger we needed. We ended upon playing wing-backs to add width to the team but ended up being too conservative, especially after Héctor Bellerín season-ending injury.
Enter Nicolas Pépé.
His arrival from Lille brought a new dimension to the team, who found someone who can take on players and create numerical advantage in very dangerous positions; at the same time, the sudden emergence of Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli, combined with the return of Reiss Nelson from his loan spell in Germany, gave Unai Emery plenty of options for the wide positions.
The coach’s favorite style usually have wingers played opposite to their favorite foot (inverted wingers) in order for them to cut-in and make room for the full-back to overlap, something that can be easily applied in this 4-4-2 position; we would have Nicolas Pépé and Héctor Bellerín on the right and Kieran Tierney and Bukayo Saka or Reiss Nelson on the left, with both wingers extremely comfortable at cutting-in while the full-backs attack the byline and play cut-backs to a very crowded penalty box.
It sounds mouth-watering to me, especially when playing mid-table or low-table opponents, either at home or away.
Would you give it a try, if you were Unai Emery?