After Arsenal’s 3-0 loss to Crystal Palace in April, their centre-forward Alexandre Lacazette had gone 17 hours and 53 minutes without a Premier League goal from open play. He did not score again for the rest of the season as Arsenal dropped out of the Champions League places.
On Friday night, Arsenal kick off a new Premier League season with their big summer investment Gabriel Jesus starting up front.
The Brazilian scored 95 goals in 234 games for Manchester City and was a reliable member of four title-winning teams, but developed into a rotational option across the attack rather than nailing down the No.9 position.
Mikel Arteta’s job is to pair Jesus with the hungry goalscorer who broke through in Brazilian football as a teenager and was coveted by Europe’s biggest clubs.
If Arsenal are to return to the Champions League, greater productivity from centre-forward is an obvious area for improvement and that is how Jesus can help.
“He’s the best striker/defender I’ve found to play in three positions,” said Jesus’ former manager Pep Guardiola, and he certainly offers Arsenal’s pressing extra bite.
Lacazette was engaged defensively and quite adept at hooking the ball away from opponents, but struggled to maintain intensity for 90 minutes or pounce on opportunities that required speed over short distances. Jesus can do both.
Arsenal’s aggressive defensive strategy – pressing opponents high up the pitch – has been a notable addition to their play in pre-season and forcing opponents into mistakes has led to more goals.
“You can’t do that if players in front go, they don’t track,” Arteta said after their pre-season win over Sevilla. “They don’t have that instinct and intention to provoke things that we want, and Gabby is phenomenal at that.”
In this game last season, Arsenal were unable to cope with Palace’s defensive pressure and coughed up the ball continuously. This time they have the chance to reverse the role, with Jesus supported by the industry of Martin Odegaard, Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka.
Before running out of gas, Lacazette’s waiting game proved useful for Arsenal, but it was a little one-dimensional.
The Frenchman enjoyed being used as a backboard, setting up plays with first-time wall passes to his team-mates. He rarely backed down to turn on the ball and carry it forward himself.
When he dragged defenders out of position this was effective, but the centre-backs quickly found that they could hold their position because Lacazette was never going to threaten with the ball at his feet.
Jesus, on the other hand, has played a significant proportion of his Premier League minutes as a winger, and his presence in the team gives Arsenal another dribbler.
There was a lovely turn in Arsenal’s friendly win against Chelsea as he flicked the ball down the right and burst past Trevoh Chalobah after receiving the ball back to goal on halfway.
Lacazette would have put the play back to the midfielders or looked for a mistake, but Jesus has a wider range of movement.
Second phase threat
Both Lacazette and Jesus can combine with teammates in small spaces. This suits Arteta, who wants to use his central striker to drop into pockets of space to outrun the opposition’s midfield.
The difference with Jesus is that once he has played the first pass, he is able to cover the ground quickly enough to threaten in the penalty area.
This was captured in his first goal against Sevilla at the Emirates, when he received a Ben White diagonal near the left touchline.
After finding Granit Xhaka’s overlapping run, he managed to sprint to the six-yard box to turn home a rebound. In a comparable situation, Lacazette would have reached the edge of the area when the ball hit the net.
One criticism of Arsenal’s attack under Arteta is that they can resemble a Subbuteo team, with players tied to their positions and little interchange between them.
Lacazette was not a striker who was at home near the touchline, but Jesus is far more comfortable on the wings, which could allow the likes of Martinelli and Saka to fill the central zone and be close to goal.
It also makes it easier for Arteta to field both Jesus and striker Eddie Nketiah in scenarios when Arsenal are chasing a goal.
Arteta always wants his team to attack with structure, but the more players happy in a range of zones could make Arsenal more elusive.