Arsenal Writer’s Roundtable: the Aubameyang situation, goalscoring youngsters, and COVID’s re-emergence
Each week, a few of the writers at You Are My Arsenal will answer questions regarding recent matches, transfers, squad developments, and other goings-on at Arsenal Football Club. Stay tuned for opportunities to have your questions answered by the YAMA writers in the future! In the meantime, Justin Fisher (@jtfisher34 on Twitter), Aaron Jaffe (@AaronJaffe11), Rahul Lakhani (@rahuliole), and Dope Gooner (@dopegooner) have tackled a handful of Arsenal-related questions below.
Do you think we should have kept Balogun looking at our striker situation (as things stand he is going out on loan) and played him over Eddie who might leave?
AJ: I think Folarin Balogun should be in the matchday squad instead of Eddie Nketiah considering the situation with the turned down contract offer. Although it’s some sort of persuasion tactic by Mikel to convince Eddie to change his mind, I don’t think that Folarin was given enough of a chance (against Brentford) and deserves a run of a few games to see how he can cope at the professional Premier League level and not with the U23 squad.
DG: In my opinion, sending Balogun out on loan is the right move. Honestly, I think we should have gotten that done in the summer. In the situations that Nketiah has come on in recently, it has been more a case of Arteta throwing the kitchen sink at a deficit and seeing what works. Getting tossed on the pitch when needing a goal away to Manchester United or Everton is a lot of pressure and probably isn’t great for Balogun’s development right now. Eddie’s almost definitely gone next summer, might as well squeeze a last few goals out of him while we still can.
RL: I think Balogun could have been given more minutes, especially in the League Cup over Eddie Nketiah due to the latter not signing a new deal, but it’s not the end of the world. A loan move in September would have been more beneficial than U23 football this season, but this looks like it will be rectified in January. As soon as Eddie refused the contract extension, there was no reason for him to be given minutes ahead of Balogun or even Pepe, apart from maybe a last minute shop window attempt.
JF: This may be a controversial opinion, but I don’t have many issues with how Arteta has handled Balogun thus far. Clearly Balogun, and not Eddie Nketiah, is in the long term plans for Arsenal. Nketiah currently has 32 Premier League minutes this season- so it’s not as if Nketiah is really even playing that much either. Now if Balogun is not loaned out for the rest of the season- then there will be issues there. But as it stands I don’t think it really matters that much for Balogun’s long term development.
Do you agree with how Arteta handled the Aubameyang situation? If not, how do you think he should have handled it?
AJ: I don’t think that anyone can comment on the situation as not enough is known in terms of circumstances regarding Aubameyang’s sudden absence. Mikel handled the situation in the press very professionally and as it is revealed to be a family-related leave, there’s not much to say on the matter.
DG: For me, it depends on a lot of things that we don’t quite know for sure. With that in mind, here’s how I feel about the matter as of now: if this hadn’t gone past Aubameyang being dropped for Saturday, then I would only have a problem with how publicly Arteta did it. Maybe he wanted to get ahead of it, but I still feel like he could have said something like “Auba wasn’t fit to play today” and then made up a calf strain or back issue. I personally don’t mind small fibs like that. However, Tuesday’s events indicate that something bigger or more prolonged has transpired. If Aubameyang’s loss of the captaincy is about something more than being late returning from tending to his mother in France, then I’m fine with it. This is a young, developing group of players. There is a lot of potential for positive growth, but also for corruption. Aubameyang is not devoid of leadership qualities, but if it’s true that there have been continuous issues drawing concern from multiple people at the club, then it’s for the best that someone else takes the armband. But it’s a multilayered situation that is likely to have a lot of gray area. It will be a while before we really know whether this was the right call.
RL: When you look at Aubameyang in isolation the situation was handled well by Arteta. He was not leading by example as a captain and there were multiple breaches if reports are to be believed. The only criticism I can understand of the way Arteta has handled what is a messy situation, is when compared to how Willian was ‘disciplined’ after going to Dubai and still starting away at Leeds last November. Aubameyang has been unprofessional on multiple occasions and stripping the captaincy is fair, even if he was playing well.
JF: We spoke about this at length in the Avenell Roadcast (shameless plug) and I don’t think we have enough information to have a strong opinion either way. Arteta clearly hinted that this was not the first time Aubameyang has broken a ‘non-negotiable’ and that the latest breach was merely the final straw. When the news first broke prior to the Southampton match I was fine with the decision to drop Aubameyang. However, I did not expect him to be stripped of the captaincy days later. As DopeGooner said- we have a very young squad and the few leaders we have really make an impact. I think ultimately the only way we will know if Arteta was correct is by the reaction from the other players. If they (especially the younger players) thought Aubameyang was getting away with a lot, agree with the decision and continue to play well- then Arteta is vindicated. However, if the other players feel it is harsh from the boss, then Arteta could be on a slippery slope towards losing the dressing room.
With Aubameyang and Lacazette not quite doing the business in terms of scoring, how far can goals from Odegaard, Smith Rowe, Martinelli, and Saka go toward replacing that production?
AJ: I think that the four players are crucial to the game plan but it does involve having a striker that can provide goals from these creative players. Alex Lacazette hasn’t performed that badly, scoring in the last minute against Crystal Palace and a wonderful finish this week against Southampton. In terms of bringing in a striker, I think it is needed as the wingers and midfielders are doing their jobs but are being let down in the all-important games by the attacking outlets who need to be scoring at almost every opportunity they receive.
DG: I think it goes very far, not so much toward replacing that production, but toward softening the blow of what will probably be another season of underwhelming contributions from our strikers. The quartet of Odegaard, Smith Rowe, Martinelli, and Saka have so far combined for 14 goals and 8 assists this season. Honestly, it’s pretty solid considering how young they are. As they all play together more and up their composure in front of goal, I expect those numbers to increase and look forward to seeing what the final tally is in May. However, our need for an upgrade at striker is becoming more and more obvious by the week.
RL: Odegaard finding form in front of goal has been one of the few positives from the last few games, and I am confident he can keep this run up. Smith Rowe, Saka and Martinelli will all improve on their tallies from last season, but this will not be enough on it’s own. Pepe needs to be given more of an opportunity, given he was our top goal contributor last season, and if Aubameyang and Lacazette continue to draw blanks in front of goal, a new striker should be considered a priority.
JF: In the last couple of years, Arsenal have been dying for goal contributions from midfield so this development is a welcome one. It was only two years ago that Aubameyang single handedly won us the FA Cup by scoring almost every single goal during that run. There was plenty of discussion throughout last season on how we are extremely reliant on our strikers for goals. Now, ironically we are the exact opposite. Almost all of our goals are coming from midfield and wide areas and we are desperate for a goal threat up front. I think this model has worked before where the goals are shared amongst the group rather than a singular person; however, I worry that a poor run of form from Saka, Smith-Rowe, or Odegaard could leave us in an unfortunate position. This is also where Pepe is really needed. He has shown he can create and score goals- and he may be relied upon if (and likely when) the goals are not as prevalent from midfield.
Keeping in mind the Premier League’s treatment of our similar situation at the beginning of the season, how do you feel about Spurs’ match against Brighton being postponed and how should the league deal with the COVID outbreaks in Manchester United’s and Aston Villa’s camps?
AJ: I think that the severity of the virus and its new Omicron variant rapidly increasing has caused the Premier League to make decisions that they wouldn’t have made in September. Although Arsenal did have a COVID outbreak and it is slightly unfair, I think the Premier League have learned from this and are going to postpone matches to ensure that everyone is staying safe in and around the clubs. It may not be the right decision in terms of fairness towards Arsenal, but it’s right for the future of the virus and the season going ahead.
DG: It’s tough. On one hand, of course we were rejected outright by the Premier League before they did a 180 for Spurs and United. The script writers nailed it again. But COVID cases are skyrocketing once more. Safety is really critical here, and as unfair as it is to us (and boy do I think it was unfair to us), as unfair as it is to teams who avoided infections but have to reschedule matches anyway, it is more unfair to more people to risk contributing to the spread of the virus. The most important thing is that people stay safe and teams and the league do everything they can to avoid outcomes like lockdowns and suspension of the league.
RL: It is a tough one to assess without knowing the exact number and severity of cases. Although we missed a lot of players against Brentford, only Willian, Runarsson, Aubameyang and Lacazette were covid related. Gabriel and Partey were unrelated injuries, and the likes of Tomiyasu and Odegaard had not even joined the club yet. It may seem like favoritism that Tottenham got to postpone matches, but when it comes to the virus I think the league should act with caution. Obviously there needs to be a protocol implemented consistently across the board, for example if a team has a certain number of cases specifically within the FIRST TEAM SQUAD then the game should be postponed without further delaying. I thought the most notable thing about United’s game against Brentford being postponed was that it was on the cards for two days, before being announced less than 24 hours before kick off, which is far from ideal for fans booking travel and accommodation.
JF: I completely agree with what Aaron said at first. It is really really unfortunate what happened to Arsenal in the league opener versus Brentford. However, this is one of those moments where the sporting context of football matters less than keeping players, staff, and fans safe. Clearly the Omicron variant is spreading rapidly in England, and around the world, causing institutions to rethink their coronavirus policies. If we’ve learned anything over the last few years, it’s that the world can change rapidly over the course of a few months, and what the COVID-19 climate was in August is not the same as now.
Who do you think should be the next Arsenal captain?
AJ: The captain is a tricky one as I think more of a group than a certain person should obtain the role. The temporary captain will be and expects to be Alex Lacazette, although his contract does expire soon.
RL: Arteta spoke about a leadership group going forward, and this may not be the worst idea, before appointing a permanent captain at the end of the season. If I had to pick a candidate for now, the two names that stand out to me are Kieran Tierney and Martin Odegaard. Lacazette will be leaving, the optics of giving it back to Granit Xhaka are not worth the uproar it will cause amongst sections of the fanbase, and Ramsdale and White have not been here long enough. Gabriel is another one who has really stepped up in terms of leadership and performances, but his limited communication in English may not be ideal when considering the languages spoken within the squad.
DG: I think it should be Odegaard. I’ll do some process of elimination first and then actually support my theory. Tierney actually seems like a pretty quiet guy to me, and despite his duties as fine collector, he doesn’t strike me as having a big enough personality to marshal the team on the pitch. Gabriel would present some language barrier issues. Giving the armband back to Xhaka, despite him having the most captain-like qualities of any Arsenal player, would represent a regressive move. And no one else really strikes me as having the capacity or being ready to be captain of Arsenal. Odegaard has been captain of his national team since March, and as just a loanee was comfortable yelling instructions to his teammates last season. There’s a subtle confidence and determination to him that I like, too. I can’t really put my finger on exactly why, but Odegaard as captain feels right to me.
JF: For me, I would go with Odegaard with Gabriel as a close second. Some have mentioned that due to Odegaard’s age they would be hesitant with making him captain. I personally want our next captain to be someone who is going to grow along with the rest of the squad- someone who is almost guaranteed to be here for the next couple of years. Odegaard is the captain of his national side so he has the experience already of captaining at a young age. When I watch highlights of Odegaard, he very clearly is a leader on the pitch. He is constantly instructing players, telling them where to be, who to pass to, etc. When he joined, I remember in one of his first interviews he spoke about this- how he views himself as someone who can take control of the pitch (something he was never able to do at Real Madrid) and was a reason why he was excited to join Arsenal.