Arsenal's solution moving forward could be pairing two strikers
It's been a long time since Arsenal regularly lined up with two strikers. You probably have to go back a decade to a brief period when Arsene Wenger rotated Robin van Persie, Emmanuel Adebayor and Eduardo da Silva in a front pairing. However, there have been hints in the past few weeks that Wenger is toying with the idea of playing with two genuine forwards once more.
The most recent example came during Arsenal's 3-2 Premier League victory over struggling Southampton on Sunday. It wasn't quite a clear front two: Wenger's system was actually a slight adaptation of his preferred 4-2-3-1. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang started as the team's de facto striker, with Danny Welbeck ostensibly playing from the left-hand side. However, as the game wore on, it became clear that Welbeck and Aubameyang were actually operating as a lopsided striking duo, interchanging positions and looking to combine whenever possible.
Arsenal's opening goal is the perfect example of that combination play in action: Welbeck joined Aubameyang on the right side of the penalty area before laying a perfect flick into the record signing's path.
It's not the first time Wenger has deployed this kind of unconventional front two. During the brief period in which Theo Walcott fronted the Arsenal attack, Alexis Sanchez was used as a supplementary striker from the left. Although the Chile international ended his Arsenal career playing predominantly as a No. 10, at that time he would alternate with Walcott as the team's focal point.
It's a shift that lends some penetrative power to an Arsenal team that can occasionally look overloaded with playmakers rather than finishers. At a very basic level, it enables the Gunners to increase their penalty box presence and provide more potential targets for the likes of Mesut Ozil and Jack Wilshere to create from deep.
There are two major reasons for Wenger to pursue this strategy. The first is Arsenal's ongoing Europa League campaign. With Henrikh Mkhitaryan now injured, the Gunners boss must reconfigure the Arsenal attack. Alexandre Lacazette is available again, and fielding Welbeck alongside him should reduce the workload on a player who can occasionally look cowed by the physical aspect of the game.
For his part, Welbeck is insistent he can play alongside either of Arsenal's pricey frontmen. "As you've seen, I can play with Pierre and with Laca. It is nice. It gives you that added motivation. The competition is there, so you are going to improve and better yourself. I know I can link up with plenty of the players in this team."
If Arsenal are to go all the way in Europe, it will surely be on the strength of their attacking rather than their defending. With that in mind, it arguably makes sense to shift the emphasis of the team farther up the field.
Also, for all the speculation surrounding his future, Wenger is likely to have one eye on next season. He presumably regards the remaining Premier League games as an ideal opportunity to experiment ahead of 2018-19 and will be acutely conscious that he may have to find a way to squeeze Aubameyang and Lacazette into the same side on a regular basis. A club with Arsenal's resources simply can't afford to leave £50 million worth of talent on the bench.
It's easy to see how pairing Welbeck with one of Lacazette or Aubameyang is simply a dry run for the long-term aim of fielding the two most expensive players in Arsenal's history in tandem. For now, Welbeck's good form means he is likely to keep his place, but it seems inevitable he will eventually be squeezed out in favour of Arsenal's "big two."
James McNicholas is one of ESPN FC's Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @gunnerblog.