Sunday, January 29, 2023

Goodbye to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang

Wembley Stadium – August 1st 2020

It’s 1-1 and there are 67 minutes on the clock when Hector Bellerin drives forward into the Chelsea half. He collides with a Chelsea player, the ball breaks to Nicolas Pepe who plays a square pass to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang just inside the Chelsea box.

The Arsenal captain is faced by Kurt Zouma who shifts his weight to his left hand side to prevent the striker using that deadly right foot to curl a shot at goal. Aubameyang immediately shifts it to his left foot, leaving the defender beaten all ends up.

“Oh Zou!”, exclaims Jorginho mournfully, the Chelsea player nearest to the action. He knows they’re going to be punished. Goalkeeper Willy Caballero stands up, comes halfway, but is unsure. He doesn’t quite know what Aubameyang is going to do.

What he does is clip the ball, dinked like the most delicate golf shot, beyond the Argentine’s left shoulder and into the back of the net to make it 2-1 to the Gunners. It is the finish of a striker at the very top of his game, full of confidence, and absolutely sure of his own ability to deliver. It’s his second of the game, and it wins the FA Cup for Arsenal.

Aubameyang and the Arsenal players celebrate, while around the world the millions of Arsenal fans celebrate too. None, bar some lucky journalists of a red and white persuasion, are inside Wembley that day to share the moment, or to share the lifting of the famous old trophy.

To this day, I think that FA Cup win still remains something of an abstract in the minds of Arsenal fans. I loved it, you loved it, but something was missing. Fans weren’t there because of Covid lockdown, and as much as the team celebrated together, something fundamental was absent from the experience. Even for those who would have watched from afar anyway, the roar of the crowd, the eruption at the final whistle adds colour the canvas in the gallery of your mind.

Aubameyang’s two goals that day, on top of the two goals he scored against Man City in the semi-final, were as close as you’ll ever get to a player driving a team to a trophy single-handedly. Of course it’s a team effort, and on both those days the collective endeavour is what enabled him to deliver and to shine the way he did, but his quality up front is what made the difference.

The FA Cup winner was his 29th goal of that season, and with 12 months left on his contract, all the focus was on what Arsenal would do next. I’m not going to be a revisionist and say I was against it, because I wasn’t. I saw a player who was delivering goals on a regular basis; I wondered how, even if we tried, we’d be able to replace that via the transfer market; and I think we have to take into account the fact that we were just 4-5 months into a pandemic and everything was so uncertain. Games were being played behind closed doors, nobody knew how long that was going to last or how severe the financial implications would be for football. We had no idea what impact it might have on the transfer market, so if you’ve got a chance to keep a top class striker when it’s as difficult as it’s ever been to find a replacement, wouldn’t it make sense to give him a new deal?

Hindsight is 20/20, of course. Personally, and I know some won’t agree, but I think it’s too reductive to draw a line directly from the contract to what happened next, even if we’ve experienced something similar in the not too distant past. I never got a sense that Aubameyang was phoning it in or simply didn’t care anymore, but there’s no question that the goals dried up. There were reasons. His deployment out wide didn’t always help, but he had scored from there before. There was a bout of malaria – remember when he played with this and they said it was flu and everyone went ‘Yeah right, “flu“‘ after a performance in which he obviously lacked some energy. That lack of energy was understandable then. There were personal issues, a sick mother during which time Arsenal gave him time off, Covid. All that, plus a player whose powers had begun to wane made him less effective.

Even so, he was the starting striker in every Premier League game this season until the disciplinary thing. I don’t really want to go over that again, but the fact Arteta picked him every week until then tells me, at least, that he didn’t just decide to ostracise him on a whim. Obviously something serious went down between them. Arsenal’s plan regarding centre-forward was to let Alexandre Lacazette see out his deal, if Eddie could be convinced to stay as a third choice then fine, but it was about Aubameyang playing this year, then his final 12 months would be shared with whoever the summer signing was.

This whole thing has been a mighty spanner in the works, and our January attempts to bring in a new forward feel like a failure because of that. Clearly reconciliation was not possible, I wish it was because I’d much rather we were going into these final 17 games with Aubameyang in the squad than not, but it is what it is now.

In the end his departure now is probably better than having another Ozil situation where a player isn’t playing and the whole thing is like a cloud over the club. If you want to celebrate the wages we’ve saved, go right ahead, but no pound notes are scoring us any goals between now and May. There will obviously be some benefit at that point in terms of what we can spend and how we spend it, but right now I’m more interested in the games we have left.

I think it’s a real shame it’s ended like this, but I don’t think it should be forgotten what an exciting, effective player Aubameyang was for us: 91 goals and 21 assists in 163 appearances. As I’ve said previously, I think our first mistake with him was not signing him the summer we paid £50m for Lacazette then almost immediately decided we need to spend even more on another striker. Again, hindsight is a wonderful thing.

I loved the 2020 FA Cup, even from a distance, and I think his contribution to that would be more fondly remembered if the game had been ‘normal’. On a personal level, I really liked him as a player too. He had his flaws like everyone else, but he was up there with the best in Europe in terms of his goalscoring season after season, even with us. Even when he was at Arsenal in such a period of flux and there were so many other things going on, on and off the pitch. When the teams he played in were nowhere near as good as you’d expect Arsenal to be.

Thank you, Auba – and with the greatest of respect, I really hope we don’t miss you in the second half of this season.

This is an excellent read from Sid Lowe on how it all went down on deadline day.

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