Arsenal’s top three goalscorers this season also happen to be the three most expensive players in the club’s history.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and Nicolas Pepe cost a combined £175 million and, theoretically, should represent one of Europe’s most exciting frontlines: Aubameyang on the left, Lacazette down the middle, Pepe on the right.
They are a close-knit trio, all French-speaking and all influential figures in the Arsenal dressing room. Aubameyang and Lacazette, especially, are two of the closest friends within the first-team squad. Kindred spirits, they clicked from the moment that Aubameyang walked through the door in January 2018.
Why, then, does it not work on the pitch? Saturday’s thrashing by Liverpool was, remarkably, the first time this season that Pepe, Aubameyang and Lacazette had started a match together. It was also one of the worst performances under Mikel Arteta, with the strikeforce offering nothing by way of attacking threat, combined or individual.
It said so much about their struggles as a front three, and Arsenal’s off-field decision-making over the last four years, that Arsenal were longing for the influence of Bukayo Saka, 19, and Emile Smith Rowe, 20, against the Premier League champions. Aubameyang, Lacazette and Pepe were supposed to be the high-class, high-cost attacking trident of Arsenal’s dreams. Instead, they have been largely supplanted by two academy graduates who cost nothing.
Saka and Smith Rowe are fit again for Thursday’s crucial Europa League quarter-final against Slavia Prague, and it would be a major surprise if they did not come back into the team.
This is not to say that Aubameyang, Lacazette and Pepe have never worked as a trio. All three started the FA Cup victories over Manchester City and Chelsea last year, and all three played well in those games. But as Arteta has attempted to evolve his team this season, they have not progressed as anyone at Arsenal would have hoped.
The strangest part of it all is that they tend to produce their best football without each other. Pepe’s most exciting performances this season have come when Aubameyang has not been playing. Aubameyang’s last six goals have come in matches which Lacazette has not started. Lacazette’s last four goals have come without Aubameyang on the pitch.
Arteta said there are “different reasons” why they have not clicked as a trio. “One of them is because we have had so many injuries and Covid,” said the Arsenal manager. “We have had a lot of things happening with [different] competitions: we have had to alternate and still be competitive.
“Sometimes it is because of the qualities we have around the team, and that cohesion that the team needs. Sometimes we believe it is better to do it in a different way.”
The key word here is “cohesion”. With Saka and Smith Rowe in the team, that cohesion is there. Without them, it is often missing. For Aubameyang and Lacazette, in particular, the on-field cohesion has never been as obvious as it is behind the scenes. Only Unai Emery, who played them together as a front two in the second half of the 2018/19 season, has managed to get the best out of both of them for a sustained period.
Fundamentally, they are both central strikers. If Lacazette plays centrally under Arteta, Aubameyang has to play on the left. If Aubameyang plays centrally, Lacazette has to be on the bench. When they have both started this season, Arsenal have won just 39 per cent of their matches. When one of them has not played, that figure jumps to 52 per cent.
The ongoing difficulty of finding a way to maximise the talents of all these players is the ultimate proof that short-term decisions affect long-term performance. Aubameyang was signed in January 2018 (a desperate roll of the dice as Arsene Wenger looked to secure Champions League qualification), only six months after Lacazette had arrived.
In terms of squad planning and balance, Arsenal were thrown out of sync — and they have not played in the Champions League since. Pepe’s signing made sense, in terms of his position as a more natural winger, but the blunt truth is that he has never met expectations as an individual, and the three of them have never met expectations as a trio.