Consumer satisfaction is largely driven by value- the more that you pay for something the more you expect from it. It is no different in football, when a player earns a new contract and a pay rise, expectations rise, which is only correct. Arsenal fans’ tolerance for Theo Walcott gradually dropped, firstly in January 2013 and then again in the summer of 2015 when he signed new contracts on improved terms. Suddenly, the wrinkles in his game were far less acceptable.
After all, contracts are not, or shouldn’t be, rewards for what you achieved in the past but paid down on expectation for what you will deliver in the future. Which brings us to Pierre Emerick Aubameyang. When you award a new three-year contract to a 31-year old, you probably expect for returns to diminish as that contract approaches expiry- so the first and second year of it had better be good.
Auba currently sits on nine Premier League goals, two of which were penalties. He averages 0.38 goals per game in the league this season, last season he averaged 0.61 goals per game. His average across his three years at Arsenal is 0.58 goals per game. Put simply, he is producing less and this is supposed to be the most fruitful segment of the contract.
As speculation increased over his deal last summer, my position was always relatively neutral. The way I saw it, there were three outcomes- he signs a deal, he leaves and Arsenal recoup some cash, or he stays for one more season and leaves on a free transfer. My favoured outcome was the latter; but I didn’t feel strongly about it. I felt all three outcomes had positives and negatives.
While it is undeniable that the player’s output has dipped, the question becomes how much you think that is Aubameyang’s fault. Until Boxing Day when Emile Smith Rowe was fielded in a 4231 formation, Arsenal’s chance creation metrics were circling the drains with the relegation battlers. Aubameyang is not and has never been a player for build-up.
He needs chances. His movement is such that he gets lots and lots of them. He has always been an average finisher but his superpower is his ability to generate great opportunities through his movement. He is not going to drag you through a game Patrick Vieira style. Arsenal were painfully incapable of progressing the ball into the penalty area via any other route than hopeful aerial balls prior to Boxing Day.
From last season, comparing Liverpool, Arsenal, and Man City in terms of who creates those "big chances", who misses them (Jesus was quite unlucky), and who scores. pic.twitter.com/TWb4nDEXyM
— 7amkickoff (@7amkickoff) February 19, 2021
Willian, Lacazette, Pepe and Aubameyang were all in some of the worst form of their careers and when your entire attack is simultaneously underperforming, there is probably something else going on. As much as we rightly expect more of players that earn better contracts, I also think it is true that we are very quick to hold their salary against them.
In fact, I would argue that a lot of us subconsciously look for reasons to do so because we resent the money that footballers earn. It creates a negative emotion in us and we look to justify it. Personally, I don’t think Aubameyang the player changed one bit during this season. He needs chances to thrive otherwise he is a pretty limited player by elite standards- much like Cavani or even Aguero.
Those are all easy things to see. Auba has no special talent for finishing from the area you're talking about, in fact he's an average finisher all around. His talent is getting into really great positions. Here's his shot chart for the last 7 years. Green=goal pic.twitter.com/h4LiN2Bcgn
— 7amkickoff (@7amkickoff) March 2, 2021
He only does one thing outstandingly well and it just happens to be the most important thing. A mixture of his new contract and the fact that he wears the captain’s armband, which also inflates fan expectation of a player, has led to increased scrutiny for his performances. I think the captaincy is taken way, way too seriously in England.
Leadership is important and different players exhibit it in different ways. Our impressions of leadership are biased towards extroverted behaviour but introverts can lead too. A piece of cloth on the arm (or the absence of one) has 0% impact on a player’s leadership capabilities. It neither gives nor takes away. Leaders effectively channel their personalities, whatever their personalities, they don’t change them because there is suddenly a demand for them to do so.
Aubameyang has always been a low touch player who is absolutely world class at finding space in the penalty area, he was never any different and he hasn’t been any different in that respect this season. It is not a coincidence that he started scoring more goals when Arsenal drastically improved their chance creation through the introduction of Smith Rowe and Odegaard.
He didn’t just suddenly decide that he cared having not given a rat’s arse for the three months previous. His improved production and Arsenal’s improved chance creation are undeniably linked. I also think penalty box players are easily misunderstood. When I was younger players like Gary Lineker were dismissed as tap-in merchants. Auba has been accused of disappearing in games this season.
Last July, Aubameyang had only 26 touches in a drab 1-0 defeat to Aston Villa as he was starved of service on the left-wing. Ten days later he scored twice in the FA Cup Final against Chelsea. He didn’t just switch the “I care” button on and off, Arsenal just created better chances in one game than the other. Just try and think of any game across Auba’s three years at Arsenal when he didn’t score a goal but you came away thinking, “he played really well today.”
Difficult, isn’t it? When you make a decision to build around Aubameyang, you need to thoroughly augment the creative elements of your team because what you’re paying for with Auba is the ability to find space in the penalty area. Players that thrive on space in the busiest, most well-guarded area of the pitch are supposed to disappear, their whole game is built on being difficult to detect.
That’s why they get so many chances. It is fair to say Auba has missed his fair share of chances this season, particularly in the Europa League. Again, that is not unusual, he has always missed presentable chances. That said, he has been missing them at too high a rate. Arsenal got away with it against Benfica and Olympiacos but are unlikely to do so now the Europa League is in its final stages. Teams won’t give Arsenal that many chances.
That said, fan judgement of players is lightning quick nowadays- every game is a referendum on a player’s talent. We simply do not accept that form can fluctuate, if and when it does, there always has to be a reason and quite often, those reasons are ascribed to attitude or fatigue. It was only six weeks ago that Aubameyang, with a vibrant, creative trio of Smith Rowe, Odegaard and Saka behind him, scored a hat trick against Leeds.
His performance against West Ham on Sunday was poor. I think there is mitigation in that he was once again pushed out to the wing and I have simply never been a fan of playing him out there. I understood it last season in order to get an extra goal scorer into one of the wide forward positions but I just don’t think it’s necessary anymore. Frankly, he has never been a good enough footballer to play on the wing in my view and Arsenal lose the qualities you would want from a winger when he plays there.
Even so, it is impossible to discount the context of his removal from the starting line-up for the North London derby due to tardiness. We are reliably told it was far from a first offence this season. That is certainly worrying, if not totally alarming. Worse still it ruined the momentum Aubameyang had started to build playing as a centre-forward in an Arsenal team that had finally found its creative feet.
He didn’t quite get to benefit from that in January due to his mother’s illness in Gabon, which kept him out for a few games and he required a couple of matches to get back into his stride. He had just started to hit that stride again when he was (deservedly, in my view) dropped for the Spurs game and now his flow has been interrupted again, which is frustrating because it was so avoidable.
On the pitch, I see the same Aubameyang this season that I have always seen. If you get the ball into the area regularly he will get lots of chances, he won’t score all of them but he will get opportunities. Though his link-up play is far better than people credit him for, that’s not why you play him or why you award him a new contract.
Off the pitch, there seem to be issues and he knows well enough by now that Arteta won’t stand for it. As a character, Auba has always come across to me as quite sensitive (which I say non-pejoratively), he’s such a happy-go-lucky character that his face looks like granite when he is not smiling and I think it’s fair to say that against Olympiacos and West Ham he did not look like himself. The team has largely fixed its creative issues, now it is up to Aubameyang to shift his disposition into sunnier climes again.