The acquisition of Marouane Chamakh this summer figures to be (in its own quiet way) the most significant offseason move Arsenal have made or will make.
That is not to overstate the individual talent of Chamakh himself. He is an excellent striker and a phenomenal talent with a solid, physical presence. He also has the kind of on-the-pitch work ethic to make any hard-nosed devotee of old-time football nod approvingly.
The completeness of his game, however, should not be mistaken for brilliance. Chamakh is not a world-class striker. He does not create goals ex nihilo in scoreless matches. Nor does he possess the kind of game-changing talent to turn the tide of a match and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
In other words, Chamakh is not Robin van Persie.
Even so, his introduction to the squad broadens Arsene Wenger's roster options, significantly enhancing the manager's ability to adapt his offensive game plan to different scenarios and opponents.
Recognizing the necessary hierarchy that distinguishes van Persie, Chamakh, and Nicklas Bendtner in terms of talent and seniority is a prerequisite of any attempt to make sense of their individual offensive roles in 2010-11.
Keeping that flexible condition in mind, I'd like to talk about Arsenal's three center forwards and offer some thoughts on the best formations and lineups to utilize their diverse abilities.
The Three Big Men and What They Each Bring to the Table
Andrei Arshavin, Carlos Vela, and Theo Walcott will not figure as central to this discussion. They are all strikers (even if they can play other roles on the wing or in the middle of the pitch), but they do not belong within this article's more limited scope.
Eduardo, in his pre-Martin Taylor days, may have been part of the center forward equation, but his departure obviates the need to discuss where he would play. I heartily wish him luck with his new club.
Arshavin is one of Arsenal's best and most versatile attacking players, but we all saw how woefully inadequate the Arctic Fox was as a center forward or a lone striker when van Persie and Bendtner were out. That's simply not his game, though his abilities as a winger or second striker will be considered in much of what follows.
Preeminent among the Gunners' traditional "big men" is van Persie.
Football fans, commentators, and Brits in general are inclined to abuse the word "brilliant." Yet not other word can suffice to describe van Persie's game. His pace, skill, and vision enable him to change the tempo of any match in a heart beat. There are few players in the world who can accomplish with both feet what he can do with just his magical left.
Chamakh, as already mentioned, is no van Persie, but anyone who underestimates his merit as a footballer does so at his own peril. There is a reason Wenger has coveted the young Moroccan for over a year.
For a player of his size, and with his obvious inclination for physical play, it must be remembered that Chamakh is incredibly skilled with the ball at his feet.
He is not an out-and-out striker, never having totalled more than 13 goals in his career at Bordeaux. While this can be attributed, in part, to the conservative mentality of the club, it is as much a result of the fact that he enjoys setting up others' goals as much as he likes to score his own.
In Yoann Gourcuff, he had an extremely talented young attacking midfield partner with whom he enjoyed an excellent rapport. If he can strike a similar note playing with van Persie, Arshavin, and Cesc Fabregas, he will excel.
Last, but perhaps most interestingly, is Bendtner.
The brash young Dane (whom I am hoping will become more widely known as "the Baron," "the Red Baron," or simply "the Coiff") has enjoyed dividing opinions among Arsenal supporters since becoming a first-team regular two seasons ago.
His leaden first touch and lack of breakaway pace have killed innumerable scoring chances. His inability to beat opposing defenders one-on-one or with his back to goal could drive the most saintly of Arsenal supporters into expletive-ridden tirades.
Nonetheless, Bendtner simply has a nose for goal. He has excellent positional awareness, a surprisingly deft passing touch, and a great physical and aerial game.
He may never reach the Olympian status for which he seems to feel himself destined, but if his nine goals and five assists in 13 appearances between the end of February and late April are any measure, Gooners would be wise to show patience with the 22-year-old.
Bendtner is a proper run of starts and a bout of good form away from being the biggest thing to come out of Denmark since Legos (he may already be a tad more colorful).
An Ideal Forward Lineup
With the diversity of talent at hand, the optimistic supporter might be paralyzed by choice when it comes to choosing a forward or combination of forwards. A more cynical fan might think back to last season's run on eligible striking talent and panic at the prospect of having only three 6'0" plus strikers on the roster.
However you line them up in an ideal scenario, it's important to remember that plans may change faster than van Persie can say "horse placenta." It's also important to remember that, like him or not, Bendtner will be no stranger to the starting lineup, even with Chamakh and van Persie healthy.
My ideal starting lineup would feature van Persie as the point man, Chamakh as the second striker playing just off of van Persie's right shoulder, and Arshavin as the hybrid left wing-cum-wide left striker:
I believe van Persie belongs in the center not just because he has earned the top spot after seasons of quite literally waiting in the wings. More important than his standing at the club, his creativity and marksmanship would be wasted on the periphery of the Arsenal attack.
In 11 matches as a center forward in the league before his mid-November injury, van Persie scored seven goals and tallied seven assists. His strike rate of .64 over the first three months of the season, coupled with his equally remarkable assists total speaks to his productivity in the middle.
Chamakh should also be in the middle as much as possible. For all his ability to cut in from the channel and work the give-and-go, the ex-Bordeaux striker is quicker than he is fast. He belongs in the center, where his physical play will bring an important extra dimension to the offense.
In that way, Chamakh would provide the credible aerial threat the club has lacked since the departure of Emmanuel Adebayor. His quick-passing and tactically ingenius ground game would not go to waste, as he would be able to play in close proximity to van Persie and Fabregas in a situation similar to what he had at Bordeaux with Gourcuff and Fernando Cavenaghi.
Arshavin prefers playing as a second striker. Nonetheless, he is more than familiar with a wide role. His pace and skill on the ball make him a dual threat to beat his man to the touch line or cut inside to shoot from the edge of the box.
Few players in the league are better than Arshavin at keeping defenders on their toes. Many a right back will lose sleep the night before facing the 5'8" Petersburger.
Obviously, the key to any Arsenal offensive game plan is "fluidity": no one player will be tied to any one side or sector.
Van Persie should be free to drift deeper and deeper into the middle third to receive the ball and work his magic with Cesc Fabregas. Chamakh may drift into a more advanced, cherry-picking position and look to get on the end of crosses. Arshavin should be encouraged to work his way into the center and switch sides to test both full-backs and stretch whatever marking scheme the defense is running.
What About Bendtner?
Not listing Bendtner as a starter does not mean I think he should take a permanent back seat to Chamakh.
Wenger is a master when it comes to cultivating young players' abilities and bringing them along as professionals. Rarely has he ever been presented with a more difficult balancing act than trying to promote Bendtner's development while getting the most out of his new toy, Chamakh.
We must remember that Chamakh was not signed because le Prof saw Bendtner as an inadequate long-term option. Chamakh was brought in because of the unique set of skills he brings to the equations and in order to add depth to an offense that was hamstrung by injuries in 2009-10.
So while Arsenal's ideal starting XI may leave Bendtner on the outside looking in sometimes, his total playing time may still increase from last season to this season.
Bendtner will always be an excellent second half substitute, a fresh pair of legs and a big body to take the load off of the injury-prone van Persie and the EPL rookie, Chamakh.
Not only should Bendtner be the first striker off the bench, but he should see a fair number of league and Champions League starts.
Against mid- and lower-table league opponents, his size and aerial ability will be very well-suited to breaking down more traditional, physical defenses.
In the Champions League, his nose for goal will not only help Arsenal comfortably see-off lesser opponents, but will enable Wenger to rest Chamakh and van Persie in weeks with multiple fixtures.
Not all minutes of playing time are created equal, though, especially where a developing young striker is concerned. Seeing cleanup duty in the last 15 minutes of a match or two non-consecutive starts per month may be enough to help take the load off of van Persie and Chamakh, but will hamper Bendtner's progress and hurt the overall value of his contribution.
At some point in the season, regardless of the other two big men's fitness, Bendtner will be given his opportunity to shine. I doubt that Wenger's regular lineup is yet set in stone, though I expect Bendtner to start against Liverpool on August 15. If he does not feature in the opening day starting XI, doubtless the manager will probably sit Bendtner down and reassure him that he will be a significant contributor in the long-run.
Alternate Lineups for Different Tactical Puzzles
As already mentioned, fluidity and adaptability are keys in Arsenal's possession-oriented attack. It's one thing to own 60 percent possession, but another thing to find the final pass to set up a scoring chance or to put the ball in the back of the net.
The path to goal varies depending on the opponent, and Arsenal will not spend all its time in one formation, be it 4-2-1-2-1, 4-3-3, 4-5-1, or 4-4-2.
Wenger seemed to favor a shift to a 4-2-1-3 last season. I expect him to plan his team around that formation going forward, which is why I envisioned my preferred forward lineup as the front end of a three-man line.
Even within the 4-2-1-3 and 4-2-1-2-1, however, I can foresee specific lineups being better or worse suited to various challenges.
Depending on the situation, the same formation I favored above can be shuffled: Chamakh can take the point position and van Persie can play off of him. Bendtner can be substituted in the top striker's position, as he is not quite the facilitator that one would want in the second striker's spot. Arshavin can move in from the wing to play in his preferred position behind the center forward.
The formation could be reversed, with a wide right winger instead of a wide left winger. In that set-up Arshavin could play as the second striker with Chamakh or van Persie on the point and van Persie or Bendtner on the wing. Another, more natural winger, like Walcott could also slot in nicely.
In more physical contests against opponents who are content to play for the 0-0 draw, it might make sense to deploy a heavy-duty lineup with Chamakh and Bendtner in the middle and Arshavin wide to the left, or with Bendtner wide to the right and Arshavin playing behind Chamakh in the middle.
Even more extreme, I suppose, would be to go with van Persie, Chamakh and Bendtner at the same time. That would mean playing without Arshavin's special penetrating threat and might make the line a little too plodding for Arsenal's style of play. That aside, it would certainly present quite a match up problem.
Alternatively, for some fixtures it might make sense to maximize the width of the pitch, arranging the forward line in a more traditional 4-3-3 look that could accommodate Arshavin and another small winger on the far side with van Persie, Bendtner, or Chamakh in the middle. Of course, to maintain a healthy size advantage, two of the three big men could remain on the pitch, with van Persie or Bendtner split wide to the right and the other forward stuck in the middle.
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Clearly, there are dozens of conceivable permutations within the above setups, especially when they can be further tailored by in-game directives from the manager.
As Bendtner matures and Chamakh becomes better acclimated to the league and his new club, I hope to see the players switching positions and plans of attack frequently during the course of any given match. Ideally, the front line should become entirely unpredictable to opponents, switching positions and varying runs seamlessly and in such a way that the only people who can anticipate their movements are each other and their indomitable captain, Fabregas.
I think that the element of versatility that Chamakh contributes—the ability to show opposing defenses drastically different looks from match to match, from the first half to the second, and even from minute to minute—will be one of the keys to our success.
Wenger can go small with Arshavin, van Persie, and a winger like Walcott, Nasri, or Wilshere up front. He can go big with Chamakh, van Persie, and Bendtner all on the pitch at the same time.
All four of Arsenal's primary striking options—Arshavin, Bendtner, Chamakh, and van Persie—are capable of playing from the outside or in the middle. All four are as capable of tallying a brace of goals as they are of contributing a pair of assists. All are experienced in the Champions League, as well as at the international level.
Balancing playing time among several excellent players, many of them young, developing stars, will be a difficult task, but one that Arsene Wenger will relish more than cobbling together makeshift lineups without realistic options at key positions.
If Bendtner and van Persie can ward off long-term injuries, and if Chamakh can avoid succumbing to the rigors of the demanding Premiership calendar, Arsenal will field its most complete forward line in years. In that case, 100 goals will be a very attainable goal.
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