Finding Arsenal’s Next Number Nine

Things can change very quickly in football. On Christmas day, Arsenal sat in 15th place, on 14 points, 14 games into the season; they had just crashed out of the Carabao Cup, recorded their 7th winless Premier League game in a row, and question marks surrounding Arteta’s future began to surface.

Fast forward a month later, and Arsenal’s season looks significantly more promising. A switch to a 4-2-3-1 and the faith placed in the youthful trio of Martinelli, Smith Rowe, and Saka have proven to be especially decisive decisions: an energetic and intense performance vs. Chelsea on Boxing Day led to a 3-1 win. Saka and Smith Rowe were both involved in goals, Tierney was a far more influential figure as a natural LB, and Arsenal actually looked a threat going forward – the introduction of creative, technical, and intelligent players in the final third made such a difference.

The strong form has continued. Arsenal have won 6 of their last 8, the youngsters have continued to play their part, and there’s suddenly a foundation to build upon; but there’s still pieces of the side that need obvious improvement, and the center forward position is one of them. Although Lacazette has played an important role in Arsenal’s mini-resurgence, there’s still question marks surrounding his future. At 29, and with his contract expiring in 2022, it’s hard to see him in Arteta’s long-term plans. Eddie Nketiah has never quite shown the quality required to be Arsenal’s main man, and Folarin Balogun’s contract negotiations continue to stall.

What is the ideal number 9 profile for Arsenal?

The three pictures below provide an insight into Lacazette’s role in recent games, and exactly what Arteta expects from his center forward: involvement in the build-up, a key role in final-third play, and the kickstart for the press from the front.

Arteta will be looking for a player who can not only replicate these expectations, but perform them to a higher standard. Using statistical profiling and video scouting, we’ve created a shortlist of four center forwards we believe Arsenal should consider pursuing in the near future:

Alexander Isak

Real Sociedad, 21 years old

We begin with a tall, physically imposing, technical Swedish center forward – and no, it isn’t Ibrahimovic. The attention surrounding Alexander Isak has been huge ever since he signed for Dortmund as a 17-year-old. His time at the club proved difficult, but a fruitful loan spell at Eredivisie side Willem II prompted a move to Real Sociedad before the 2019/20 season.

A 16 goal debut campaign proved he was ready for the step-up, and although he’s suffered with inconsistency this season, three goals in his last four starts suggests he may have turned a corner. Despite his 6’4 frame, Isak offers more than your average target man: he possesses incredibly quick feet, a strong burst of pace, and excellent dribbling ability. He does, however, do most of his best work in and around the box, averaging 5.78 touches per 90 in the area – he can still improve on becoming more involved in the build-up. An imposing forward who can combine both physical and technical traits by linking play, offering an aerial threat, and making consistent runs in behind, Isak is a really intriguing option at CF.

Darwin Nuñez

Benfica, 21 years old

Darwin Nunez’ rise in the past two years has been outstanding, and it doesn’t look like he’s slowing down anytime soon. The 21-year-old Uruguayan became Benfica’s record transfer after a €22m move from Segunda División side Almeria last summer. Some may have seen the signing of an unproven, young forward for that fee as a gamble – but he’s already made any doubters eat their words.

His league goalscoring numbers don’t jump out at you (although he does have 5 in 5 in the Europa League), but it’s other aspects of his game that are so well-refined for a player of his age. Physical prowess, an ability to stretch defenders and run the channels, high IQ link-up play, two-footedness, and strength and control on the dribble are all traits that often develop over time, yet Nuñez already excels at them. His finishing can improve, but his impact in the build-up and creative numbers are seriously impressive. He ranks above the 90th percentile in assists, xA, and touches in the penalty box per 90 for all Liga NOS forwards who have played 600+ minutes this season. An incredibly well-rounded CF, and at 21, he’s only going to get better.

Donyell Malen

PSV Eindhoven, 22

A name Arsenal fans know all too well. The Dutch forward joined the club as a 16-year-old, but left two years later for PSV in search of more realistic first-team opportunities. It’s a move Arsenal have regretted ever since. Malen scored 17 in 25 games last season before a serious knee injury curtailed his campaign, but he’s returned like he never left with 24 goal involvements in 28 matches this year.

It’s obviously important to be mindful of the side he plays for (a largely possession dominant, free-scoring PSV) when looking at his goal-involvement numbers, but Malen’s ability to put himself in the right positions is excellent. A combination of blistering speed, intelligent movement, and a tendency to drift throughout the final third makes him so difficult to contain. He often anticipates passes towards him and gets a jump on his marker, making blindside runs and targeting gaps in the backline. Capable of a wide variety of finishes, comfortable dropping into the ‘number 10’ role, and a force when driving at the backline, you can see from his Eredivisie rankings just how proficient the Dutchman is in the final-third. Malen’s game has so many impressive dimensions.

Rafael Leão

AC Milan, 21

When Milan signed Leão from Lille for €30m in August 2019, it was a clear indication of just how highly they rated the young Portuguese forward. A period of adaptation last season resulted in inconsistent performances, but this year, he’s taken off – quite literally. The fastest goal in Serie A history and a total of 9 goal involvements in just 14 league games means he’s one of the top performing U21 players in Europe. He’s been deployed primarily as a left winger, but we believe his future is through the middle.

He often appears nonchalant in possession before suddenly exploding into space with long, elegant strides, bypassing his marker with ease. His dribbling success rate is fantastic, and he’s exceptional in 1 v 1 situations, attacking the box with purpose and power and often drifting from the left into more central positions to form a pairing with Milan’s CF Ibrahimovic. The improvement in his goalscoring numbers suggests he’s learning when and how to put himself in effective positions in the final third, and that should only increase if he moves centrally. Like Malen, his ability to infiltrate gaps and time his runs is one of his biggest strengths, and his ball-carrying ability makes him such a threat in transition, although his decision-making in the final third can get better. The recent development in his game has been profound, and he looks ready to be the main man at a big side.

Why we believe Darwin Nuñez is the best option for Arsenal

After assessing each players strengths, weaknesses, and potential fit, we concluded that Benfica’s Darwin Nuñez would be the most suitable option in this current Arsenal side. The addition of Martin Ødegaard and the recent form of Saka and Smith Rowe suggests that Arteta prefers a creative, technical trio behind a CF who can not only provide goals, but contribute to his side’s build-up and creative play in the final third.

Nuñez has adapted with ease to a significant jump in level after his move from Almería to Benfica, and although the goals have not yet come in abundance, his skillset is so multi-faceted that he fits the role Arteta desires from his CF perfectly. When needed, he’s a powerful and effective target man; in other scenarios, he has the pace and awareness of space to run the channels and exploit gaps in behind; in games against deep blocks, he’s comfortable dropping in and being the creator (he’s currently the assist leader in Portugal, with 6). Well-coordinated and incredibly clever in his movement, his blindside runs are often impossible to contain due to the combination of his speed and intelligence. If he’s not being provided by teammates, he’s capable of taking charge himself – collecting from deep and driving at the backline with purpose and precision. He recognizes moments his movement can open up space for others, dragging defenders out of pockets for teammates to exploit. Off the ball, he presses and harries constantly, and is happy to do the dirty work in tracking back for his side.

His goalscoring numbers and conversion rate must improve to reach the pinnacle of top-level center forwards, but his Europa League numbers (5 in 5) somewhat offset his relatively disappointing goal rate in the league. Strong with both feet, dangerous in the air (he stands at 6’2), and capable from distance (see the gifs below), he’s got a wide variety of finishes in his locker.

There’s obviously improvements in his game to be made, but there’s also not many better fits for this Arsenal team. A young, hugely talented side with a lot more to give, the addition of 21-year-old Nuñez may be the perfect next piece of an interesting puzzle. To make matters more interesting, Arsenal play Benfica in the Europa League on February 18th. You won’t want to miss that.

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