There was a time when Arsenal’s success hinged almost exclusively on the partnership of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette. Although some connected to the club wish to airbrush the Unai Emery era from history, it was the maligned Spaniard who first enabled the duo to flourish. So much so, in fact, that on the autumnal day when Gunners fans gleefully sang “we’ve got our Arsenal back” as their team thrashed Fulham 5-1 at Craven Cottage, Lacazette and Aubameyang were at the heart of this renaissance, scoring twice each in a rampant display.
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The duo would score 50 goals between them during the course of the 2018-19 campaign, but as Emery’s tenure imploded and interim coach Freddie Ljungberg tried to steady the ship, Aubameyang found himself regularly deployed out wide and Lacazette’s form completely deserted him.
Mikel Arteta has instigated a revival at Arsenal in so many ways, including breathing new life into their “bromance,” convincing Aubameyang to sign a new three-year contract and reigniting Lacazette to the extent he’s now scored four goals in his past six Premier League games. The sight of Aubameyang crossing for Lacazette to score the opening goal in the 2-1 victory over West Ham on Sept. 19 was another sign that this double act can still thrive within Arteta’s more balanced approach.
“The front players need to create a certain chemistry between them and that feeling that when they look themselves in the eyes, they understand each other, they communicate on the pitch and see what they are feeling,” Arteta said Friday.
“I think we are getting that with them [Aubameyang and Lacazette] at the moment. Not only them, but with Willy [Willian] as well — the way he has come into the team straight away, with [Nicolas] Pepe, Bukayo [Saka] when he is playing that position, with Reiss [Nelson]. It is really important and something we try to promote in training as well and hopefully they can keep thinking and building those relationships.”
However, Monday’s trip to Liverpool will be a test of whether they are truly back to their devastating best.
Four months into his first season at Arsenal, Emery told Spanish newspaper Marca that his predecessor, Arsene Wenger, had left him a team that had lost its “defensive structure.” While this was undeniably true, he also inherited a partnership-in-waiting capable of rivalling almost any attack in the world.
Aubameyang arrived in a club-record £56 million deal from Borussia Dortmund in January 2018, surpassing the £52.7m paid just seven months earlier to Lyon for Lacazette. The power struggle behind the scenes at Emirates Stadium meant Lacazette was more Wenger’s signing, while Aubameyang’s arrival was driven by then-head of recruitment, Sven Mislintat.
Perhaps that contributed to what followed, but of the 14 games the pair were eligible to play in together — Aubameyang could not feature in the Europa League that year due to his Champions League engagements with Dortmund — they started in the same lineup just three times. In a sign of what was to come, they scored five goals combined in those three games. Emery tinkered with his tactics relentlessly in an effort to accommodate the pair, trying 4-2-3-1 and 3-4-3 formations before finally settling on partnering Aubameyang and Lacazette as central strikers in a 4-4-2 diamond system and, latterly, a 3-4-1-2 shape.
“It was love at first sight!” Aubameyang said of Lacazette and a partnership that yielded 50 goals. However, Emery never properly addressed the defensive issues at the club, and the atmosphere at London Cobham grew so toxic that Lacazette appeared utterly disinterested and both players were linked with moves away from the club to rivals better placed to challenge for trophies.
The turnaround under Arteta has been remarkable, a shining example of the breadth of his man-management skills.
Arsenal’s reliance on Aubameyang through both the difficult period under Emery and the Arteta revival is palpable. The 31-year-old scored 37.5% of the Gunners’ Premier League goals in 2019-20. Of those 22 goals, 17 had a direct impact on the game’s result and against the traditional “Big Six,” he’s scored seven times in 11 matches.
The charm offensive towards the duo began soon after Arteta arrived, and sources have told ESPN that the 38-year-old played a key role in contract negotiations, spending time outlining his vision for the club and Aubameyang’s pivotal role within it. His handling of Lacazette was more complex. Sources have told ESPN that Arteta’s decision to recall Eddie Nketiah from a loan spell at Leeds was partly informed by Lacazette’s dismal form under Emery and, briefly, Ljungberg.
Nketiah was given several opportunities to lead the line at Lacazette’s expense, but the Frenchman has responded in impressive fashion since the restart, not just in goal-scoring terms but in his work off the ball, too. The 29-year-old’s contribution out of possession has translated into improved running statistics and recovery of the ball, according to sources at the Cobham training base.
Aubameyang had little interest in playing on the left flank initially, but he has made the position his own, thriving on the space Lacazette often creates to cut in off the wing to score with his right foot, a move that has become his trademark just as it was for Arsenal’s most iconic No. 14, Thierry Henry.
Arteta’s preference in following the modern-day trend of playing one central striker and a concerted effort to change the team’s style to create a better balance between defence and attack means Lacazette and Aubameyang have had to adapt their partnership, something that made their link-up against West Ham so satisfactory in the eyes of the club’s coaching staff. It was the 14th time one has directly assisted a goal for the other since Aubameyang signed in 2018, and the 11th time in the Premier League. Only Ryan Fraser and Callum Wilson (13), now paired again at Newcastle after thriving together at Bournemouth, have been more prolific over that time frame.
The competition to nail down the right-wing position is fierce, with Willian making a promising start and Arteta this past week talking up the improvement of £72m signing Pepe’s contribution. Anfield will provide a searching examination of the progress Arsenal have made, but once again, Aubameyang and Lacazette seemingly carry their greatest hope of victory.