Arsenal's strike force vs Liverpool's seamless attack: Pale imitation or their best chance of success?

Daniel Zeqiri
The Telegraph
Can Arsenal's front three replicate Liverpool's success?
Can Arsenal's front three replicate Liverpool's success?
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Unai Emery kept his hands off the cookie jar for 135 minutes of the Premier League season before giving in to temptation: at half-time against Burnley he decided to put Nicolas Pepe, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang at the sharp end of Arsenal's attack at the same time. 

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It will not be the last time we see this potentially spectacular collection of attacking talent deployed together: a triumvirate of speed, devilment and goalscoring nous who filled Arsenal fans' summer fantasies. Saturday's trip to Anfield might come a little too soon for club-record signing Pepe, who is yet to play more than 45 minutes for Arsenal, and there are also tactical considerations that might deter Emery from picking three forwards against the European champions. 

A duel in the sun with Liverpool would be an apposite first full outing for Pepe, Lacazette and Aubemyang however, given that Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah have been the gold standard for devastating offensive collaboration for the past two seasons. Should Arsenal look to replicate Jurgen Klopp's formula? More pertinently, can they? 

To answer those questions, the full body of work compiled by Liverpool's forwards needs detailing and not just their raw goal tallies. Apart from the 56 Premier League goals Mane, Firmino and Salah scored last season, they also provided 14 assists and created 31 big chances between them - 41 percent of Arsenal's big chances created as a team. Salah and Mane both ranked in the top dozen players for dribbles in the Premier League last season with 254 combined. Alex Iwobi was Arsenal's highest ranking player in this field with 85 while Lacazette completed 69 and Aubameyang 55. Mane and Salah racked up 221 shots on goal  - 47 percent Arsenal's season-long shot count as a whole team. 

These stark statistics can be partly explained by the fact Liverpool were a winning-machine closing in on 100 points last season while Arsenal's springtime stumble barely got them to 70. They do however, exhibit the broad portfolio of attacking skills offered by Mane, Firmino and Salah. 

Mane brings jinking trickery, sharp turns and unpredictability; Firmino a kind of 'first yard is in the head' appreciation of space; Salah the individual genius and ability to score goals from nothing. The natural balance and patterns of play are now embossed on our mind. Firmino likes to come towards the ball and drag defenders out, Mane and Salah like to dart in the opposite direction into the vacated space. If defences fall away to block this channel, Mane and Salah can receive it to feet and cause trouble on the dribble. Mane has always thrived on the left going back to his Southampton days while Salah has always enjoyed cutting in from the right on his left-foot going back to his time at Basel. It was super-smart recruitment and they plugged into Klopp's system without a foot out of place. 

Although Arsenal can feel pleased to have Pepe, Aubameyang and Lacazette, they were acquired in ad-hoc fashion by three different recruitment regimes. Liverpool went shopping with a list - Arsenal bought on impulse. Unlike Liverpool's front three of one 'false nine' and two pacey wide forwards, there is not a conventional balance to Arsenal's attack. Pepe is a wide forward in the mould of Salah and Mane, but Aubameyang and Lacazette are two central strikers  albeit of different profiles. Any attempt to field a Liverpool-like front three will involve some compensation or accommodation, with a player sacrificing something to help his partners. 

<span>Liverpool's front three are perfectly balanced</span> <span>Credit: Getty Images </span>
Liverpool's front three are perfectly balanced Credit: Getty Images

That is not say it cannot work. Pepe delivering on his promise will be crucial as the one member of the attack who starts from a wide area naturally and brings Arsenal two things they sorely lacked last season: dribbles and shots. Pepe was second for dribbles in Europe's top five domestic leagues last term behind Wilfried Zaha, indicating exactly what Arsenal wanted to buy this summer. Lacazette is very selective with his shots, though usually very accurate when he does decide to pull the tigger, while Aubameyang is a forager of chances closer to goal bar the odd strike from range. Arsenal will not want Pepe to shoot on sight, but a little more speculation and risk would be welcome. The Ivorian averaged three shots per game in Ligue 1 last season, more than any Arsenal player for volume alone. 

There was a glimpse of solution against Burnley, when Pepe and Aubameyang looked to stretch the pitch right and left with Lacazette through the middle.

Arsenal front three against Burnley
Arsenal front three against Burnley

There was some flexibility however, whether by Emery's design or the natural tendencies of the three players. Pepe likes to step into the right-half space and even into centre forward positions - just because he is dribbler do not expect him to stand on the touchline. Emery likes his full-backs involved in attacks on the overlap so that is not a problem. Lacazette also likes to peel off down the right channel, and enjoyed a strong relationship with Hector Bellerin before the right-back's injury.

Bellerin would not necessarily over-lap Lacazette, but instead support the attack from deeper and feed through balls to the striker such as in the below example against Chelsea last season. Pepe could in theory, swap positions and fill the space that in this move is empty. 

Alexandre Lacazette
Alexandre Lacazette

The use of Aubameyang is the thornier issue: he is no Mane and is it wise to shunt one of Europe's elite goalscorers to the flank? It is not optimal and could bring the decision to sell Alex Iwobi under scrutiny, a player who might have provided an ideal counter-balance to Pepe plus one of Arsenal's strikers. That said, Emery asks his wide players to move inside so Aubameyang will not be whipping in crosses with chalk on boots. Key to making this work might be focusing Arsenal's build-up play towards the right flank and enabling Aubameyang to join moves at their conclusion in the penalty area. He is not top-class player in the middle third when asked to combine. In short: play like the Harrods Theo Walcott. 

Aubameyang is not as creative as Mane nor as dexterous a dribbler. That said, the Liverpool forward only had one Premier League assist last season as Liverpool relied on Andy Robertson and Trent-Alexander Arnold for service, something Arsenal could certainly replicate once Kieran Tierney and Bellerin are fit. Aubameyang also created one more Big Chance than Mane in the Premier League last season (eight to seven) so perhaps we do his all-round game down a little too much. 

There is more to a Champions League winning team than a front-line however, and the industry of Liverpool's midfield relieves Mane and Salah of some defensive responsibility. They do not have to track opposition full-backs all the way back, they can stay in higher 'cheating' positions waiting to wreak havoc when Liverpool regain possession and transition to attack. If you had predicted a few years ago that midfields containing James Milner, Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum could take a team to consecutive Champions League finals, many a chin-stroking football aesthete (this author included) would have laughed you out of the room. Football is so often about the sum of the whole rather than individual parts and they fulfil an important role. 

Henderson and Milner are often tasked to cover the flanks, splitting well wide of their central starting position - right to the touchline on occasion. If opponents can evade the first line of Liverpool pressing, this potentially leaves them a little open through the middle where Fabinho has vast space to cover. Arsenal exploited this in a 1-1 draw at the Emirates last season. Note how wide Wijnaldum and Milner, top and bottom of the picture, have split, leaving Liverpool a touch vulnerable after a giveaway. 

<span>Liverpool's midfielders move wide to support the front three</span> <span>Credit: Premier League </span>
Liverpool's midfielders move wide to support the front three Credit: Premier League

Do Arsenal have the midfielders to support a similarly top-heavy team? There are serious doubts, although the rate of change in this department is perhaps under-estimated: Lucas Torreira, Matteo Guendouzi, Dani Ceballos and the promoted Joe Willock have come to the fore in the last 12 months alone and bring greater off-the-ball rigour and athleticism. Starting XIs in big away games featuring both Granit Xhaka and Mesut Ozil should now be a rarity.

Emery's preferred midfield structure has been a double-pivot behind a No 10, as opposed to Klopp's tight midfield three of a No 6 and two No.8s. This perhaps makes it more difficult to cover the pitch defensively behind the front three. That said, Emery played 4-3-3 plenty at Paris Saint-Germain so it is not entirely foreign to him and a real option at Arsenal. 

If Arsenal's front three were pitted against Liverpool's in a game of Top Trumps it would be a close match-up. Top level football does not work like that however, and transforming individual talent into a slick, seamless unit is the task facing Emery. To use one his favourite English words, the search for balance continues. 

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