In the summer that went by, everyone agreed that Arsenal’s best signing would be an internal one.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had just turned in a series of world class performances at Wembley, with the cherry on top being his brace against Chelsea in the final. Fans would fear the state of Arsenal attack without him as Arsenal went into the season buoyed by their FA Cup heroics.
Eventually, the contract was signed. In the winter that marks the mid-point of the season, Aubameyang has two non-penalty league goals, the antithesis of what was expected.
To some extent, Arsenal’s fortunes mirrored that of Aubameyang, with a wretched seven matches without a win in the League before the recent upturn in form. Arsenal cried out for a creator, and the one they had on 350k-per-week was left at home.
Sideways passing was a theme of their matches with no one to link the midfield and attack. By Christmas, apparently Arsenal were in a relegation battle. A day later, facing arguably the third-best squad in England, Mikel Arteta introduced Emile Smith Rowe. Gone was the sideways passing, and with a player operating in the No. 10 slot, Arsenal blew Chelsea out of water.
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Aubameyang was injured for the game but returned for the games against Brighton and West Brom, however, his performances can be described, at best, as a passenger. Arsenal played free-flowing football, especially against West Brom, and Aubameyang, while encouraging in his performance, was a side act.
How quickly he had declined from a talisman to a dysfunctional member of the attack. Part of the reason is the need for Arsenal to evolve. Upon taking charge at Arsenal, Arteta realized the defensive frailties and adopted a counter-attacking approach. The passes were direct and made at a time when Arsenal won the ball and the opponent backline started retreating. This suited Aubameyang to a tee, perfectly exemplified by his second goal against Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final.
With a new season and new expectations owing to the cup success, the task with the manager was to return Arsenal back to the glorious passing game it was once famed for, combined with new-found defensive solidity. Supporters didn’t want the team to sit back and spring on the counter, instead angling for development into a cohesive and potent attacking unit. This meant every player had to be involved more in the build-up.
Wingers were required to not only cut inside but also beat their man, provide width and play crosses into the box. A lack of No. 10 also contributed to the transition through wings. Aubameyang’s role went from an inside forward on the left who runs in behind to a more traditional winger, something he is capable of but not best suited to. Neither could he be shifted to a central role owing to his poor link-up play and inability to drop back and create.
His performances declined and he now plays like a shadow of the player he once was. His confidence dropped and he doesn’t even look as quick as he was.
This is not to say he has suddenly become a bad player. He’s an excellent finisher with a great skill set. Instead this is a point in his career when he needs to evolve and develop his all-round game more, be more involved in the attack in addition to getting on the end of moves.
The left forward position is more suited for him considering his strengths and weaknesses, and he needs to fulfill all the responsibilities that come with the position – granted, that is difficult for a player playing for more than a decade with the same style. But football evolves and players need to adapt.
A player will feel confident when he feels like an integral part of the attack. This combined with a few goals in quick succession and Aubameyang will again feel like the world-class striker that he clearly is. Scoring against Newcastle may certainly help.
Aged 31, this is a crucial point in his career where he needs to start contributing more to a team who clearly believed in him while handing him a contract extension. Aubameyang was adamant he made the right decision in staying. Now he needs a new evolution which can prove the decision correct.