The first run went beautifully—better than almost anyone could have expected.
Arsenal handed shiny new January toys Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang their first Premier League starts against Everton last weekend, and they responded with a goal and three assists between them in a 5-1 demolition job.
Combining with Mesut Ozil, the trio just clicked. B/R's Alex Dunn regaled us with a description of how they interchanged and connected at will in the buildup to the first goal, taking just six minutes to provide tangible evidence of the excellence they can bring to the Emirates Stadium.
Mkhitaryan finished the game with three goals created; Aubameyang with a debut strike; and Ozil with yet another 90-minute example of how smooth he can be in facilitating success for others. Aaron Ramsey netted his first career hat-trick simply by taking advantage of the front three's passing combinations and arriving in dangerous areas at the right times.
But amid the celebration of the Gunners' new attacking heroes, one face was left looking a little forlorn: Alexandre Lacazette, who joined the club last summer for a then-club-record fee of £53 million, per BBC Sport, spent the 90 minutes on the bench.
That figures to be the case again—at least from the start—on Saturday when the north London derby comes to town. There's just no way to fit all four into the XI and for Arsenal to succeed this weekend; one must be rendered the odd man out, and that is set to be the Gunners' top scorer.
Alarmingly, this could prove to be the case more often than not moving forward. No matter how manager Arsene Wenger juggles his lineup and tweaks his formation, no viable permutation exists for fitting Lacazette, Mkhitaryan, Aubameyang and Ozil—the full "LMAO" combo—into a functional side.
Lacazette and Aubameyang up top together
As a partnership, this could work—and work well.
Over the years, Aubameyang has morphed into a fully fledged No. 9 and classical penalty-box poacher, hanging on the shoulder of defenders, utilising his searing speed in behind and developing a knack for finding space in tight areas. He scored a lot of goals for Borussia Dortmund, of which a high number were simple, close-range conversions.
Lacazette has that stone-cold-predator element to his game too, but he clearly loves to drop in and link play, feed passes through to runners and involve himself in deeper areas of the pitch too. He's good at this, and his deeper movements—combined with Aubameyang's directness—have the makings of a fine pairing.
The issues arise for Wenger a little further back. To accommodate two strikers, the formation must tilt to either a flat 4-4-2, a 4-4-2 diamond or a 3-5-2. None of these setups suit Arsenal's midfield corps.
In the diamond, Ozil can play as the No. 10 and flourish, but where would Mkhitaryan feature? As a box-to-box No. 8? Wenger should think hard before entrusting a player who is known to drift out of games with that sort of off-the-ball responsibility. Trusting Granit Xhaka to hold the base of a diamond is a huge gamble, too.
In a flatter 4-4-2 Mkhitaryan could feature wide and stretch his legs, but the system places too much defensive strain on Ozil and removes him from his comfort zone. As exciting as the new names are, the Germany international remains the Gunners' best player, and it's imperative he can perform to the best of his abilities.
The 3-5-2 brings greater tactical stability via a midfield three of Xhaka, Ramsey and Jack Wilshere, but it again leaves Ozil and Mkhitaryan either filling an odd role or sitting out of the team.
Push one wide?
Arsenal's current 4-2-3-1 formation clearly has one spot in the attacking ranks up for grabs: Alex Iwobi's.
He didn't play poorly against Everton and shouldn't be under immediate threat, but with Aubameyang, Ozil and Mkhitaryan manning three of the four attacking spots, it's clearly the Nigeria international's role that's a placeholder.
Some might ask whether Lacazette or Aubameyang could take up the mantle—after all, elite teams with more than one top striker often field one wide in order to find them more minutes. But while both have played wide in the past, neither are suited to the position in 2018.
Lacazette's slightly sluggish style doesn't feel like it would mix well with wide defensive duties in the Premier League, and that's not a criticism of him—he's a No. 9, and his way of operating suits that perfectly. Don't pay big money for him based on one thing and then ask him to do another.
Aubameyang began as a winger and has the obvious physical traits to succeed in a wide role, but again his time at Borussia Dortmund saw him change his game and develop into a prima punta. Why would you break your transfer record to sign him and then play him in the position he left behind three years ago?
It should be noted that when the Gabon international was a winger, he was nowhere close to the level he currently is as a striker.
It goes against the grain of Arsenal's current feel-good narrative, but signing Lacazette and Aubameyang six months apart—each for a club-record-fee—smacks of poor planning and, perhaps, outright desperation from Wenger.
All four in?
There is perhaps scope to fit Lacazette, Mkhitaryan, Aubameyang and Ozil in an XI together in a very specific circumstance—when they're playing at home against a weak opponent.
They've tended to overpower and overawe lesser sides at the Emirates this season with or without their January signings. Their home record in all competitions makes for excellent reading: 16 wins, four draws and just one defeat.
When facing a side such as the Everton one last weekend, the individual talent probably papers over the tactical cracks, allowing the high-priced quartet to take to the field together.
In matches away from the Emirates or against any credible opposition, though, fielding all four would create too many structural instabilities to work. They're already losing to the likes of Bournemouth and Swansea City on the road, with the midfield ignoring their defensive duties and the centre-backs playing each other into trouble.
Would a further piling-on of attacking assets (at the expense of defensive ones) really fix much? Or has Wenger simply decided to go out in a Kevin Keegan-Newcastle-style explosion of 5-4 wins?
Aubameyang, Lacazette and Ozil are Arsenal's three most expensive signings in history—with Mkhitaryan in the fifth-sixth territory depending on how you value him in the swap deal with Alexis Sanchez—and they can't all regularly play together.
It leaves Lacazette as the odd man out at least for the time being, with new acquisition Aubameyang given the chance to stamp his mark on the team and live up to his price tag.
It means Arsenal head into this weekend's north London derby with a £53 million striker, signed six months ago, on the bench with no obvious route back into the team unless their even newer £56 million striker doesn't do the business.
At least there's the Europa League.
All statistics via WhoScored.com