The Curious Case of Arsenal’s Missing Captain Aubameyang
When Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang is in full force and finishing, it’s not hard to see that there are few better than world football than the Gabonese striker. His goal tally speaks for itself.
As Arsenal struggle to create chances and score goals, questions are going to be asked. They are going to be asked of the manager and of the players. Just because Aubameyang is the Captain and has been reliable heading into this season, does not mean the Gabonese shouldn’t escape any criticism himself.
Historically, Aubameyang is not a striker who will create his own chances. Is this something he can do? Yes, but it’s not truly a part of his game. At Dortmund, approximately 90% (our own rough estimate) of his goals were through passages of play that ended up with him being on the end of service, whether that was a diagonal pass, through ball, cross across the face of the goal, or a scramble in the area.
Aubameyang is not a classical centre forward like Lewandowski, Kane, Aguero, and any other who can and will craft chances for themselves. He also will not use quality on the ball to wiggle into space and create even a half-chance. Those just are not components of his game.
If you had to classify him as anything, you might say he is a “hyper-poacher.” He is a player that feeds on chances but also has a keen understanding of movement, space, how to run off the shoulder, and how to time his runs to near perfection.
However, he is also a player who is quite reliant on the system and the collective of players around him. If they are struggling, he struggles and as we look at the declining chance creation at Arsenal, its no wonder he is going through his worst spell at the club.
Right now, with Arsenal lacking creativity and snuffing out our own chances because a methodical approach to possession, we see a forward who is currently only averaging 1.3 shots per 90 minutes and hasn’t had one shot on frame since matchday four.
The system and structure we are playing in is not giving him the freedom to attack space. Arteta clearly wants his team to be purposeful in its build-up play and he wants them to have it as second nature. However, that comes at a cost.
As we build up and it slows down, we allow teams to get back, behind the ball, and organise which in turn impacts a player like Aubameyang by leaving him very little room to operate. This is completely antithetical to direct and incisive football that was on display at Dortmund and resulted in his best rate of return.
It’s a given that at some point, Aubameyang will score goals, whether he is a centre forward or left wing – he has already done it at the club. It’s a fallacy to equate his downturn to just being “he’s not playing as a centre forward”. It is not the position you play him at or where you want to put him on your weekly “this is how I would lineup” graphic. What it ultimately comes down to is how he is utilised in the bigger tactical picture the team is trying to execute. Right now, this is why he, among many on the team are struggling at the moment.
But it is possibly not the only thing weighing him down. Aubameyang is about as gregarious and likeable as any player you see these days. His smile and laugh are infectious and it’s easy to see why his teammates would want him as their captain.
However, being captain means that there are times when the team is not playing well, that you have to be the one to hold your teammates accountable. It is not something you equate with Aubameyang – aside from a few looks of scorn when a pass is hit wrong.
The captain has to be able to not only hold his teammates accountable he has got to be the first one to try and put them on his back and carry them across the line. For Aubameyang the problem comes when a match does go wrong, he is one of the first players to put his head down in frustration and will often time disappear.
This manifests itself in many ways but one of the more striking is the lack of off the ball movement and general work off the ball when the team has possession. The intensity is not sustained and only becomes better when he feels like it results in him being on the end of an opportunity.
Rarely does he make the runs necessary to create space dragging defenders with him. With his pace and overall threat, his mere presence on the pitch can have so much more effect than it currently has. This is why many of his contemporaries are vastly superior to him.
This is not meant to argue the case that Arsenal should have let a player like Aubameyang go. On the contrary, everyone is well aware of his potential and what he can do when he has a clear-cut chance available to him. Keeping him speaks a lot to what Arsenal are trying to achieve.
It is also not to say that Arsenal’s current woes are solely down to his play. There remain issues across the squad. However, Aubameyang is the leader of this squad and the players will go as he goes.
However, he is the Captain. He is our most prolific player and as stated as he goes the team goes. He cannot afford to take entire games off which in essence is what yesterday looked like (in fairness the whole team did.) If you cannot question his performances who can you question?
This fight back to the top four is going to be a long slog. COVID likely restricted the club on what they could achieve in terms of ins and outs this past summer. We are going to have to find it within ourselves to be patient.
Patience does not mean that you need to sit idly by and avoid calling things out that need to be called out. Aubameyang’s performances this early season fall into that category.