Just like that, the Premier League closes its doors for the Summer. With the end of the season, comes the obligatory end of term reports. I’ve decided to start with what always becomes the most inflammatory and controversial aspect of these – the player ratings. For context, I begin from the perspective that 5/10 is the baseline ‘average’, and then move from there. Also, the ratings are for the individual concerned, and so based on the expectations of them and how I feel they’ve performed relative to that. Just because I award one a higher rating than another, it doesn’t mean I am saying they are definitively a better player. Ok? Good, I hope that will stem the tide of some of the Ozil fanboys, at least for a Fortnight.
Lacazette – 8.5
Arsenal’s official player of the season and my developing man-crush, Lacazette has really risen to the task this season. Considering six months after he arrived at London Colney Arsenal broke their striker record with the signing of Aubameyang, you could forgive him for feeling a little side-lined. It is a testament to the characters and abilities of both that they have built such an effective partnership on and off the pitch. When Arsenal have been searching for an identity and a culture in the post-Wenger era, this ‘new wave’, fresh and energetic presence both bring to the dressing room has given the squad an approachable face-lift.
On the pitch you could argue ‘the stats speak for themselves’. 27 Premier League starts, 13 goals and 8 assists is a very impressive tally from the Frenchman when you consider the sporadic and often dysfunctional nature of the Arsenal attack. Changing systems and formations has the greatest impact upon Lacazette out of the attackers as it is his role that changes most significantly. When playing as part of a two-man partnership, he has to drop deeper in order to act as the link between Aubameyang, the wide-men, and the deeper midfield. This brings out my favourite aspect of Lacazette’s development this season: he has become even better as a connector for his teammates. His hold up play is criminally underrated, and when combined with his control in tight spaces you have a deceptively capable ‘false nine-target man’ hybrid. His work rate has also improved immeasurably this season, as he appears to have taken up greater responsibility in the team.
When playing as the solo striker, an entirely different skill set is required. If he were to continue the aforementioned role, Arsenal would be left with no tip to the attacking spear; like a blunt pencil, it would be pointless (and like me, terrible at writing). Rather, the Gunners become reliant on the attributes the world saw on display during his time in France. The man has liquid nitrogen running through his veins. He’s so cool under pressure it looks as though he could be playing in crocks and socks, and no-one would bat an eye; in fact, you’d see it on the catwalks of Milan within a fortnight. With quick feet on the edge of the box, he is able to create space for himself or supporting runners. If he decides to take the shot on himself he rarely misses the target, with an ability to curve a shot that would convince you came straight from a computer game. These daintier aspects of his game disguise his underlying power. When playing as the solo striker you can’t afford to have a physical passenger in your side, because otherwise … well, you have the exact problem Arsenal have suffered from for so many years: a lack of tenacity. His powerful ‘thunder bastard’ away to Cardiff typifies what I mean when I describe Lacazette’s underrated ability to hit what I call a ‘piss off’ strike into the back of the net. Whilst other players, here’s looking at you Xhaka, can do so with the accuracy of a Nigel Farage political campaign, Lacazette’s unerring ability to get such efforts on target mark him out as one of the best finishers in England.
At times he can display his frustration with being substituted, but I have little problem with this. I’m in the camp that believes this isn’t a petulant display of revolt towards the manager, rather a frustration both with himself and the fact he can’t stay on the pitch to give more. In what has been a tepid season going forward for Arsenal, Lacazette stands out as the real bright spot for me. At 28 he is entering the prime of his career. I just hope Arsenal don’t waste it, or he may move on the greener pastures (and by that, I mean as a replacement for the dentists’ nightmare at Barcelona).
Aubameyang – 8.5
The Gabonese goal machine is a real Ronseal striker – he does what he says on the tin/scouting report (it’s probably illegal to put people in tins). 31 goals and 8 assists in all competitions is not just a good return, it is world-class. That description gets thrown around too often that it almost feels as though it doesn’t mean anything to describe himself as such. When you look at the esteemed players he shares the achievement of scoring more than 25 goals in the last 5 seasons – Messi, Ronaldo, Aguero, Lewandowski and Suarez – it is hard to deny the Golden Boot sharer/winner as amongst the best strikers in the World. Perhaps the problem is expectation and perception. It is hard to describe him as a lethal finisher, because he does miss a fair few big chances: his tally of 20 big chances missed tops the charts in the League and is double that of efficiency expert Aguero. Furthermore, some of these opportunities came at crucial times in the season when a game hung in the balance. Chelsea away, the tie was levelled and Aubameyang blazed a guilt-edged chance over the bar. Arsenal go on to lose the match undeservedly. Tottenham away. Arsenal pegged back after a controversial penalty, but Aubameyang has the chance to win it at the death with a penalty of his own. Missed. Arsenal fail to capitalise and come away with a point in the match many fans see as the decisive factor in the club missing out on top four. I realise I’m not exactly building up a great case for the defence here but let me explain. Aubameyang is not necessarily a great chance converter (although his % is higher than Mané, Aguero, and Salah), he is a great chance ‘get-er’. His ability to find himself in the right place at the right time is the reason why he misses so many good chances: he gets more of them. He had only 130 touches in opponents’ box this season, less than half of Salah, and even fewer than WKD’s Jamie Vardy. He is not a player heavily involved in play and can often look like he hasn’t been involved in the game. When fans are increasingly calling for ‘passion’ and ‘desire’ from their players, this can attract criticism as it may appear as though he is disinterested. He isn’t. This is all just a result of his very individual style of play. The low-touch involvement centrally belies the fact he has a goal every 132 minutes, only bettered by Aguero.
At times this season, the record signing had to make do with warming the bench. After an impressive return in his first half-season, he too could have been forgiven for feeling a little hard done by. When you factor in he has suffered from changing roles more than a one-man adaptation of Othello, his goal return becomes even more impressive. As for the fan anger? Men in rage strike those that wish them best. Deployed out wide in various formations or used centrally partnering his BFF (Best Forward Friend), his rhythm has been disrupted repeatedly. Yet still, he carries on scoring. I dread to think where exactly those who criticise him so heavily think Arsenal would be without his goals. The idea that Arsenal would have been anything other than a smorgasbord of striking septicaemia this season without Aubameyang is baffling to me. At 29, he shows no signs of losing his trademark pace. Like Lacazette, he is entering his peak years and like the Frenchman I hope Arsenal don’t waste them. Otherwise he too could be off to sunnier climates, and perhaps lining up against his mate in El Clasico.
Iwobi – 7
The Nigerian Nutmeg King has improved hugely this season. After a period of stagnation last season, the prevailing thought amongst Arsenal fans was that he was another busted flush; a Walcott in sheep’s clothing. Despite being an academy product, he hasn’t been given the time others have been afforded in the past with fan criticism continuing this season. I understand the elements of frustration, as his bizarre combination of athleticism and grace can make him a confusing player to define. He doesn’t really have the end product of a winger, probably doesn’t have the vision needed for the creative hub of the side, and he can look a little meek on the pitch at times. He has suffered issues with his stamina, both in matches and over the course of the season, which can leave fans with a sour taste in the mouth when the Summer hiatus comes around.
All these factors, whilst valid, bely the huge improvements he has made this season. Particularly in the first half of the campaign, his energy and bustling style provided such an outlet on the left flank. In a side that can feel a little narrow in his absence, even just by being on the pitch he enables Arsenal to utilise Emery’s key attacking strategy of overlapping fullbacks. His physical presence provides an out-ball for the goalkeeper, but he also has the close control to trap and lay off to the overlapping fullback. The amount of times he has either started or come on and changed the dynamics of a match with his link up play is remarkable and worrying at the same time. His reading of the game has improved too, as he appears to have learned how to exploit space better. Previously, he would meekly surrender the ball to his teammates, or his indecision would result in a loss of possession. Now he shows signs of maturity, being able to know when best to play the pass, or when to cut inside and try to beat his man. At the end of 2018, Iwobi led the League in nutmegs, illustrating how he had developed this other aspect of his game. If he could add coolness in the box to his repertoire, then he would be a very exciting player to watch.
Perhaps that is where the problem lies. Although his ‘pre-assist’ nature is vital to the cohesion of the attack, and individually he has progressed so much, when he is on the ball I don’t get the impression the opponents are scared. They know he is not going to be the player to score the goal or play the cutting pass that leads one. He runs with the ball well, but where are these runs going? This is where his terrier-like energy can almost be a detriment to how he is perceived, and even used by the manager. Often played for a half/60 minutes in a ‘run your socks off’ role, he isn’t given the allowance to create. All you often see him do is harass and hurray opponents; he doesn’t do much of ‘the sexy stuff’. When he is given a more attacking job, he doesn’t score and he doesn’t assist as much as you really need from a winger at the top level. The role of secondary playmaker doesn’t attract much attention, and when it does, it is negative. As a player moving out from ‘the Lingard zone’ and entering the time in his career where he can’t hide behind the label of ‘youngster’, he needs to be defined more clearly. Otherwise he risks becoming the stereotypical ‘useful’ player, which would be a real shame given the raw talent he has.
I really hope he is able to take the next step in his career at Arsenal, as there are calls for him to be ‘binned’. Ironically, the manager who has seen arguably his best season could be the very reason he doesn’t realise his full potential. Personally, I like the idea of moving him deeper in the centre of midfield. Utilise his physicality more, allow him to run with the ball more, and partner him with a dynamic passer. Unfortunately, I don’t think Emery or Arsenal are in the position to take that chance.
Mkhitaryan – 5
I guess the song was right all along – Mkhi really was ‘fine’. An assessment of the Armenian is always done with the proviso of the Sanchez swap deal, which basically makes it impossible to view his time at Arsenal as anything other than biblically successful. That’s more of a testament to the Chilean’s minor career collapse at Old Trafford than anything else.
When on song, watching him singing from the same hymn sheet has been very pleasing. His early season link play with Bellerin was astounding, bringing the best out of both players and providing such clinical lethality to the overlapping strategy. On those occasions he looked like he combined the best of Ozil and Iwobi. He brought an energy to the flank, with an ability to drift inside and deliver the incisive pass necessary. He has produced his best season statistically since his breakout campaign for Borussia Dortmund, despite injuries limiting his game time. When he returned from injury in February, he brought that missing dimension to the attack which stagnated at the turn of the year. Regrettably, he was overloaded too quickly and fatigue followed soon after; ironically, his subsequent drop-off in form shows how good he was when he came back.
The issue with Mkhitaryan is the above qualities are too rarely on display. When I say he combines the best of Ozil and Iwobi at his peak, he also does the same at his worst. If I’m being charitable, I would say he has a tendency to go missing and offer nothing going forward. His inconsistency from a technical stand point saw a huge drop-off in our use of the right flank, meaning he received less of the ball. I don’t know whether this affected his confidence, as when he did there was a reserve about his play that was unbecoming of a player of his experience and wage packet. You simply can’t afford to carry a player on roughly 200k a week. Even if ‘carrying’ is too strong a sentiment, his performances this season have too often reeked of mediocrity. Whilst his early season statistical returns were very impressive, they didn’t continue through the season. I would argue these good early figures papered over the cracks he showed in his defensive game. I remember the fury I had over his performance against Manchester City, and the way he hung the inexperience full backs out to dry with his poor work-rate. He abandoned the out of position Maitland-Niles, showing tactical naivety and a fundamental lack of character that has typified Arsenal for too long. Another player who wilts in the face of adversity. Admittedly, he’s been passable for most of the season but the expectation levels have to be higher than that.
When I say ‘fine’, I very much mean it. He has been the microwave Chicken Korma of footballers this season. Sure, it’ll sustain you, but you’re not going to be excited about it and probably won’t think about it unless it causes problems deeper. Imagine paying £200,000 a week for a curry that might taste nice, might be fine, but might also cause you to take up residence in your toilet. It’s probably best to get something new for dinner.