Monday, May 20, 2024

Auba and Under

A time of writing, Pierre Emerick Aubameyang is the top scorer in the Premier League, with a rate of a goal every 116 minutes (pre Brighton). This despite sometimes being played on the left hand side of the attack and often being used as a substitute. Aubameyang has 22 goals in 31 appearances since joining a pretty wayward Arsenal side back in January.

Thus far, he has been an unqualified success in North London and the Premier League more generally, hitting the ground running and finding the net at an outstanding rate right from the start. Yet his feats have been curiously under played. His two goals against Burnley recently won a tight game for the Gunners, yet his name was conspicuous by its absence from the back pages and the tongues and typewriters of the analysts.

Inside the stadium, his name was sung with an abbreviated enthusiasm, as though the supporters were fulfilling a contractual obligation to sing the goalscorer’s name. Prolific scorers rarely find credit difficult to come by, as Harry Kane’s recent OBE nomination attests. So why does Auba find rooftop acclaim so elusive?

For a start, I think the same is true of Sergio Aguero, who is generally well respected in England, but his record really should put him in the conversation as one of the Premier League’s greatest imports but rarely seems to. Aubameyang and Aguero are analogous I think because they are both pure goal scorers. Both are technically perfectly competent, but don’t really stand out at anything other than finding good positions to score really close to the goal.

Both rarely score screamers, most of their goals are scored in the final 15 yards of the pitch, central to the goal, so a lot of the finishes lack a ‘wow’ factor. The gift that both players share is realised off the ball and away from the prying eyes of defenders and, ergo, the public at large. Both players take a high volume of close range shots because they specialise in finding space. They could get away from a man marker in a phone booth.

Aubameyang is a pure ‘poacher’ which, in itself, is often a pejoratively used term. (The modern version of its forefather, ‘goal hanger’). Historically, this type of forward has found commensurate respect difficult to come by. I recall Gary Lineker being teased as a goal hanger. Mention the name of Pipo Inzaghi and you will likely be met with a snort of mild derision. You may even recall Sir Alex Ferguson’s quip that he was ‘born offside.’

Inzaghi is a three time Serie A winner and two time Champions League winner who holds the record for the most amount of hat tricks scored in Italy’s top flight (10). Even the likes of Jimmy Greaves and Gerd Muller probably aren’t held in the reverence that their records warrant historically. In recent years, the ‘poacher’ has probably lost even more cache with the football watching public.

The generation of Thierry Henry, Raul, Ronaldo (Brazilian) and Andriy Shevchenko altered the perception of how a top class striker operates. Andy Cole played in more or less the same era as the aforementioned and people look upon him as a bit of a joke, despite playing a huge part in Manchester United winning 5 Premier League titles and a Champions League.

There is a sincere tactical discussion about the ‘value’ of the poacher in top level football, which Michael Cox dissects brilliantly in his book ‘The Mixer.’ Alex Ferguson sold Ruud van Nistelrooy because the Dutchman’s desire for goals began to ‘swallow’ the other elements of the team. Van Nistelrooy only won 1 Premier League title at Old Trafford at the height of the club’s power and the club consistently failed in the Champions League during his tenure.

Ferguson moved away from a single point of contact and built a front line out of the rotating triangle of Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez and won 3 consecutive league titles and a Champions League. Something similar happened to Arsenal with Ian Wright in truth. Wright signed when the Gunners were reigning champions and the club did not win a title again until Wright was largely injured and replaced by Anelka in 1997-98.

Aubameyang doesn’t score screamers, he does not drop deep to link play. He stays advanced and looks to find a nook or a cranny in the penalty area. He is a low touch player, whose presence can completely escape your notice until he troubles the onion bag. He also doesn’t conform with the modern mould of an elite striker.

Centre forwards at the top level play more of a “9.5” role. Kane does it, he even eschewed the number 9 shirt at Spurs in favour of the number 10. Robin van Persie played in this manner too. Obviously Ronaldo and Messi have altered the pattern of the goal scorer by scoring many of their goals from nominally wide positions. The likes of Gareth Bale and Mo Salah have continued this mantle.

As a result, centre forwards have often become butlers for free scoring inside forwards. Karin Benzema made a career as Cristiano Ronaldo’s butler, Roberto Firmino has provided a similar service for Mo Salah and Gabriel Jesus performs this role excellently for Neymar for Brazil. Aubameyang transitioned into a throwback striker after being an orthodox wide man charged with providing the bullets for Robert Lewandowski at Borussia Dortmund.

Much of this explains the relative silence around his Arsenal output more widely. But Arsenal fans have not showered him with the hero worship afforded to other prolific strikers. After a few years of (justifiably) wanting an upgrade on Olivier Giroud, you would think that Auba would be greeted like rainfall in the desert, but, while not disliked or anything close, he doesn’t seem to be as popular as the more hard running and therefore noticeable Alexandre Lacazette.

My guess is that his lack of involvement in games explains a lot of this. But also, despite his inventive hairstyles and outlandish taste in clothes and cars, Aubameyang is not an especially interesting player. He is no one man fireworks factory like Ian Wright, he doesn’t have van Persie’s penchant for blistering volleys nor is he as obsessed with his running statistics as the Dutchman.

He doesn’t have Henry’s insouciance or Vaudevillian sense of theatre, nor does he provide the visceral thrill Adebayor briefly provided with his relentless bullying of defenders. He lacks Olivier Giroud’s GQ looks (don’t we all?) Auba doesn’t even really have an ounce of devil in him on the field. When he came to the club, he immediately befriended the club’s expensively acquired number 9 – compare and contrast that to Nicolas Anelka’s thinly veiled hatred of Marc Overmars, or Jens Lehmann essentially bullying Manuel Almunia for daring to exist.

Aubameyang is not a selfish player, you don’t get the sense that he would kill a puppy for a goal. He just kind of turns up, skirts around the edges of a game, inevitably scores, does a somersault and then goes home being all affable and stuff. In this sense, his luminous fashion sense and taste for garish vehicles are a bit of a misnomer. He lacks some of the more cerebral qualities of a folk hero.

Many have posited that his reputation as a bit of a troublemaker cost him a move to a Super Club while at Dortmund, but Super Clubs aren’t especially put off signing difficult characters (and, thus far, we have not seen that reputation realised at Arsenal, probably the opposite in fact). Aubameyang goes under the radar with the public just as much as he does opposition defenders. So long as he is doing it in an Arsenal shirt, that is just fine with me.

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