Pierre Emerick Aubameyang is a simple player to understand and, for many, a difficult one to appreciate. He only really does one thing very well, it’s just that it’s the most important thing. You don’t really want him involved in build-up, taking players on or even combining with others. He is not terrible at any of those things but nobody would say they are his strengths.
His greatest attribute isn’t even his finishing, which sometimes makes him even more difficult to appreciate. Much like Edinson Cavani, he misses his fair share of sitters. His greatest strength is his ability to find space in the penalty area where none seems to exist. There is a lot of work that goes into grooming that skill and we tend to only see the last part, when the striker side foots the ball into a gaping net.
In an interview with Michael Cox for The Athletic last year, Gary Lineker said, “It is actually finding space in the box and gambling on where it’s going to be. I used to read reports all the time saying “Lineker, he did nothing all game, but then he was in the right place at the right time in the 89th minute.” But they hadn’t seen the umpteen runs I’d made.
“It’s not a sixth sense. It’s not. Keep making movements, and if the ball finds you in space, you’ve got a great chance to score.” As Lineker suggests, most of us don’t observe these movements so we don’t appreciate how often a player like Aubameyang will make a fruitless movement or run. When the gamble does pay off, the goal looks easy. It’s why players like Aubameyang, Aguero and Cavani haven’t always gotten the respect that they deserve.
However, last season the goals dried up for Aubameyang and when he isn’t scoring, well, he isn’t doing an awful lot else in truth. He scored 22 in 35 Premier League starts in 2019-20. Last season, he managed 10 in 26. I happen to think that wasn’t entirely his fault, as I have set out before. Arsenal’s issues with ball progression and chance creation, as well as the player’s own issues with malaria, his mother’s health and his timekeeping disrupted his rhythm.
Wherever the fault lines, there is no doubt that he needs to improve his output in this coming season, by hook or by crook. Last season, a sense of mutual drift began to develop, with the player often looking moonfaced or fed up. When he was dropped for the North London derby due to poor timekeeping (not a first offence) he did little to hide his distaste for the decision.
The question is whether the player’s motivation levels and the team’s tactical plan can shuffle a little closer together this season. I still believe the decision to award him a three-year contract in the summer of 2020 was largely driven by PR and confusion on the part of the coach and Technical Director about the direction of the team.
Having just single handedly won Arsenal another FA Cup, it would have been a brave, difficult call to let Auba go. However, they should have taken that call. The Arsenal attack is well-stacked for talent but has always had balance issues and it became clear very quickly last season that Arteta and Edu had not formulated a cogent plan to eke the best from a player they had decided to commit a large salary to for three years.
I still believe this to be an issue ahead of this season. Lacazette, Pepe, Willian and Aubameyang have all proved to be an awkward fit in one way or another and they are all still at the club. Meanwhile, the likes of Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and Gabriel Martinelli are carrying the torch- not just for the future- but for the present.
Another issue for Aubameyang is the fine form Nicolas Pepe showed towards the end of the previous campaign. Pepe, like Auba, has some issues in the build-up phase but he knows where the goal is. Can Arsenal afford to have two players like this in their attack? Martinelli is also similar, all end-product but not quite as adept at attacking foreplay.
Auba is, in my view, a superior player to Lacazette but there is a sense that the latter’s ability to link play suits this Arsenal team better. The squad is developing a core of talented wide attackers and arguably, what they need most from a forward is to bring them into play, Roberto Firmino style. In this respect, the recent links to Tammy Abraham make some sense- he is more Laca than he is Auba. When the time comes to replace Auba, I sincerely doubt that Arteta will look for an analogue.
I retain the impression that Arteta would prefer to play with a facilitator through the middle so that the likes of Saka, Pepe and Martinelli can finish the moves. Playing Aubameyang through the middle changes the impetus of the attack completely, it means that at least one of wide forwards should ideally be focused on creating chances for him.
In the home game against Leeds in February, surrounded by Saka, Smith Rowe and Odegaard, the Gabonese helped himself to a hat-trick. The question is whether that is how Arteta wants to play and, if he does want to, what does that mean for Pepe and Martinelli? Is there going to be more of a ‘horses for courses’ approach to attack with different combinations for different games and does that really suit anybody?
These are all questions for the manager; but Aubameyang can make them all go away the same way that he always has- by scoring lots of lovely, juicy goals. It was apparent in 2019-20 that a front three of Lacazette, Aubameyang and Pepe did not inspire fantastic chemistry. Martinelli was still waiting in the wings during that campaign. Those issues of balance were still very much there.
It’s just that goals tend to lull those debates gently to sleep. Managers care less about a player potentially being a square peg when they are banging the ball into the net on a regular basis. Mo Salah might be one of the most selfish forwards in the Premier League- but nobody cares because he scores lots of goals. It’s not a worthwhile discussion.
One of the advantages of Auba being the sort of player who struggles to inspire total devotion is that few people seem to be talking about him much ahead of 2021-22. The continued presence of Lacazette at Arsenal probably allows him something of a cushion, diminishing the impact of his absences (whatever you think of Lacazette overall, few teams in the league have a back-up centre-forward of that quality available to them).
However, there is a sense of mutual drift between the captain and the club. At this moment in time, I am certain that both the manager and the player would privately express regret about the contract extension in 2020. That situation is not beyond remedy though. Whatever Arteta’s tactical intentions, Auba need only worry about one thing and one thing only. Shoot plenty, score many. He is certainly capable.