Mikel Arteta already has a plan for when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang leaves Arsenal
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has been Arsenal’s standout performer in a lacklustre season where the Gunners look set to miss out on even a Europa League spot.
He’s scored 20 goals for the second season running, saved Arsenal on countless occasions, and is without doubt one of the best strikers in the Premier League.
Yet Mikel Arteta left him out of Arsenal’s line-up against champions Liverpool on Wednesday evening.
And while the decision raised eyebrows, Arsenal became just the third team to beat Liverpool in the league this season.
The Reds were always going to dominate possession and Arsenal spent much of the first 30 minutes penned inside their own half.
Now, Aubameyang’s presence alone would not change that – he can’t single-handedly dominate Liverpool’s midfield – but he is one of the best in the league and the best at Arsenal at offering his side a route out of defence and into attack.
As one of the fastest players in the world, let alone England, Aubameyang is perfect on the counter against a side like Liverpool who play a high line, with long balls out of defence that he can latch on to.
Many may have expected Arsenal to set up this way, especially against the league’s best, and at this stage it looked as though Arsenal had made a mistake.
But we were wrong, and Arteta was right. To have set up with Aubemeyang along up top would have been the unambitious option, consigning the side to long balls and hopeful punts.
This strategy can be effective but, but what they did instead was even more effective.
Arsenal put Alexandre Lacazette up top flanked by Bukayo Saka and Nicolas Pepe, with Reiss Nelson floating in behind and in support.
Having all four options paid off. Liverpool made mistakes at the back as a young and exuberant attacking four pressed and harried the Reds’ backline.
Virgil van Dijk was forced to pass under pressure because Pepe was on him like a rash, but unfortunately for him Lacazette had made a rush on Joe Gomez too.
Had Arsenal played to defend with Aubemeyang as a long spear, this attack would have been impossible.
And the Gunners repeated the trick to take the lead before half-time.
Once again, Liverpool were forced into a mistake, with Arsenal’s attacking triumvirate each on a man. This meant that when the ball broke lose, there was a Gunners shirt ready to pick up the pieces, and another – Nelson – was at the ready to lash home.
Again, with a more defensive approach, this attack could not have happened, with Aubameyang chasing shadows on his own instead.
Arsenal’s approach was a gamble, of course, and on another night Liverpool could have scored three or four – between the two goals and after, Arsenal remained on the back foot, but stayed ahead.
Towards the end of the game, with Arsenal firmly penned in their own half, with extra defensive reinforcements needed, Arteta changed things to how we expected they’d start – holding on and pressing on the counter with Aubameyang up top.
But Arsenal were already ahead – the ‘unambitious’ option now made sense.
They had scored their goals without Aubameyang, using an entirely different approach than expected, pressing the Reds like few others have done this season.
Liverpool made mistakes. When they had the ball at the back, it wasn’t one Gunner chasing them down, but four. That’s why Aubameyang didn’t start, and that’s what Arsenal’s new front three are capable of. Arteta finally has a plan B.