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Why an Aubameyang sized plug isn’t enough

Replacing Alexis Sánchez was never going to be easy for Arsenal Football Club. Life without the mercurial Chilean is now in full swing, and though there were encouraging signs by way of two credible results in the wake of his departure, it’s the clubs recent transfer business that has everybody talking.

It has been long postulated that it’s near impossible to replace Sanchez with a single player; Arsenal’s transfer dealings seem to have confirmed that notion. Though both Theo Walcott and Francis Coquelin have also left the Emirates in this window, Atom and Humber’s proud owner has been the player the supporters – and the club – targeted for succession.

The acquisition of former Dortmund stalwart Henrikh Mkhitaryan, in the same deal (a free exchange of players without a transfer fee) which saw Sanchez debut his best Rachmaninoff impression at Old Trafford, has been well received by the Gunners faithful. Though he struggled to make a genuine impact under Jose Mourinho, many supporters turn to his brilliant final season at the Westfalenstadion as proof that he is an excellent addition to the club. It’s a notion that I agree with.

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Technically strong when on the ball and positive/direct in his preferred manner of approach, Mkhitaryan’s willingness to get forward and make things happen in the final third was an aspect of Sanchez’s game that now will not be missed on the pitch. The native of Yerevan works hard off the ball as well, showing ability to regain possession higher up the pitch as well as track back to help keep defensive shape. He has goals in him too, while his penchant for being creative with a killer eye for a pass will hopefully bring another source of creativity alleviating the heavy reliance on Mesut Özil.

Even though Mkhitaryan is capable of being a source of goals beyond being its creator, it is hard to ever envisage the Armenian international hitting the goal-scoring heights of the Tocopillan. Enter Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

After a long, drawn-out transfer saga in which every poker hand was played, North London will now claim another goal-scoring resident. Boasting the second-best goals/minute ratio in Bundesliga history behind none other than Gerd Müller, the Gabonese international is unquestionably one of Europe’s premier goal-scorers. The former AS Saint-Étienne winger-turned striker smashed 141 goals and 36 assists in 213 appearances across all competitions for Die Schwarzgelben, igniting an entertaining goal-scoring rivalry with Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski in the process.

Aubameyang wasn’t an instant hit at Dortmund. Blessed with exceptional pace, his role as a wide-forward/winger continued after his move from France, and after two seasons in Germany, his scoring record stood at 29 league goals in 65 appearances; a mark far below his more recent numbers. Halfway through the 2014/15 season, Aubameyang was moved to center forward after the conclusion of the Winterpause, where he would score 11 of his 16 league goals.

With his new role bearing fruit, his contributions and importance to the team increased exponentially. Under the new regime of Thomas Tuchel, Auba shone on another level, thriving in a pace-oriented attack that was tried and tested at the Mainz 05 proving grounds of Tuchel’s previous charge. Truly, it was an attacking system that brought out the very best of his qualities, which saw the Laval-native go on to record 105 of his 141 goals for Dortmund in the past two and a half seasons.

Maybe it’s the coach in me (my work for a living) or perhaps just the nature of my pragmatism, but the facts behind Aubameyang’s time in North-Rhein Westphalia – and my experiences watching him every week – give me a moment of pause that most Arsenal fans seemingly do not subscribe to.

As a pure goal-scorer, there are few better in Europe. The likes of the Lewandowski, along with other center forwards such as Harry Kane, Luis Suárez, Edinson Cavani, Sergio Agüero, Radamel Falcao, and Mauro Icardi, are the only players who can claim similar prowess; he’s a true fox in the box…an absolute killer. But unlike many of those listed above, Aubameyang can be described simply as a brilliant goal getter, but not an all rounder in terms of ability.

His early days at Dortmund lend weight to this argument. Sixteen goals in 48 appearances in his first season, and an improved but not other-worldly 25 in 46 appearances – many of which came after switching to center forward – indicate that he is a player who greatly benefited from a system, rather than his own innate overall ability.

His decimation of the Bundesliga goal charts since 2015-16 was not only down to a change of position, but as mentioned before, being utilized in an attacking system that relied on what he does best. Speed is undoubtedly his biggest asset, with a turn of pace over five and ten yards that routinely leaves defenders for dead if they mark him too closely. His instinctual runs into space make him the ideal center forward to finish off chances that are created inside the penalty area, while playing him into space behind a defense playing a high-line almost assuredly will advance him into a high-quality scoring chance. It’s this attacking approach, based off direct and incisive play going forward – which also saw youngsters Ousmane Dembele and Christian Pulisic excel – that Aubameyang genuinely thrives in.

Unfortunately, the same traits cannot be regularly referenced for the brand of football being played at Arsenal. Gone are the days of The Invincibles, where opposition defenses were ruthlessly put to the sword time and time again by the most attractive football seen in the Premier League until Manchester City’s current iteration under Pep Guardiola. With Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Dennis Bergkamp, and Freddie Ljungberg, Arsene Wenger’s men played there way into history on the back of some of the most effective and penetrative football witnessed in the modern game.

Sublime movement on and off the ball with intelligently crafted interchanging when going forward were the hallmarks of Arsenal’s 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 formation that season, which also relied on consistent support from marauding full-backs Ashley Cole and Lauren. It was a flexible approach as well, able to both control possession but also hit you on the counter at the flip of a switch. Ironically, Dortmund at their very best and most attractive under Tuchel was akin to this same approach. If Aubameyang was in Arsenal’s golden trophy winning side he likely would have excelled, but questions must be asked of how he fits into the current system.

The Gunners already struggle to utilize pace effectively and have so for years. Fans never saw the best of Theo Walcott because of this, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as well, due to the tactical insistence of keeping possession and control. It’s this approach that has led to countless frustrating performances against “lesser” opponents, who are more than willing to sit back in a compact defensive shape and ask the question which Arsenal have so often struggled to answer. Despite the creative nature of Mesut Özil, Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla, and even Alexis Sánchez before his departure, the Emirates outfit fail to effectively break teams down at a rate commensurate with their collective ability, while struggling to get the best out of players who rely on pace.

These factors beg the question of exactly how Wenger intends to utilize Aubameyang. Credit must be given to Arsenal though, who kicked on well without Sanchez their recent 4-1 Premier League win at home against Crystal Palace. The same can be said of their 2-1 semi-final second leg win against rivals Chelsea in the Carabao Cup. Though it wasn’t pretty for large spells in the latter of the two outings, there were signs that perhaps there is a shift in the way Arsenal intend to play. Three at the back was binned for a 4-3-3 deployment, and despite Eden Hazard opening the scoring inside eight minutes, Arsenal were not only solid defensively on the day, but as an entire unit.

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Going forward there were moments of attacking play that were direct and more positive than the usual possession-based tasking, but in that same light there were quite a few instances where opportunities to be direct – through Alexander Lacazette in particular – were turned down in favor of keeping control. But as Chelsea tried to work their way back into the match and search for an equalizer, repeated attempts to play Özil into space with a ball over the top showed an increased desire to adapt. Tactical change cannot happen overnight, especially when a style of play is so ingrained in the current crop of players, but it’s a change that must be embraced sooner rather than later.

Aubameyang’s success through the middle at Dortmund, and Arsenal’s roots under Wenger in the first half of his tenure are the perfect blue print going forward. By the admission of some Dortmund fans, it’s a change in approach that signals the clubs only hope of getting the best out of their new signing.

“Auba is a brilliant goal scorer, but he’s not an all-rounder. At our best he helps us decimate teams, but he’s only as good as the service he gets from the wings. If we sell to Arsenal, we need someone who can add more in the hold up and start the attack, not just finish it. His finishing when he has time to think is quite poor. It’s more of his finishing/his first touch and ability to accelerate towards the back post which help him.” @BorussianMyth

Lars Pollmann of The Yellow Wall Pod added additional perspective on Aubameyang, commenting on a recent Mirror Football article that the Gabonese captain only touching the ball nineteen times in their 2-2 draw against Freiburg was “completely normal for Aubameyang” and not the shocking statistic it was made out to be. In the wake of his departure, many Dortmund supporters have discussed his replacement being a center forward capable of offering more involvement in the build-up and an increased ability when on the ball, rather than just being the exclamation point of an attacking sequence.

All roads point to an incisive and direct approach as the only way Arsenal fans will see the return they’re collectively hoping for. The search for the next goal-scoring machine after Thierry Henry has been a long and arduous road, one heavily traveled with destination has been in sight, potentially until now. But hitting the dizzying goal-scoring heights of his majesty will prove difficult even for Auba under the current conditions.

Despite his pace and finishing ability when at the end of an attacking move, he’s not blessed with wonderful technical ability and has been accused regularly of having a heavy first touch. Unlike Lacazette who not only excels in hold-up play while exhibiting technical prowess and confidence on the ball even when outnumbered against a compact defense, Auba’s limited involvement in possession further signals to strengths with lay in finalization of an attack. To get the best out of his abilities, it requires service from wider areas or slipping him through on goal where his turn of pace can be used to maximum effectiveness. The question still to be asked is whether Wenger is prepared to make the correct tweaks to Arsenal’s attacking system.

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If proper utilization of Aubameyang is a concern which must be addressed, one must consider the implications on what this means regarding what Arsenal’s strongest XI would be. On paper it’s all very eye-catching; a potential 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 that see’s Lacazette and Özil added to by Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang in a front four that, at first look, would be one of the strongest not just in the Premier League but in Europe as well. Unfortunately for many Arsenal fans, the realization that this is actual football and not FIFA18 must be accepted. Bringing Aubameyang into the team isn’t as simple as plugging him into the XI, and then sitting back to watch the magic happen.

Many have called for a return to a 4-2-2-2 in a throw back to days past, playing both Laca and Auba together in a front two with Mkhitaryan and Özil on either flank. Such a deployment would still leave the Gunners woefully exposed in midfield, a deficiency the team has had since Gilberto Silva traded London for Athens. The nature of both the Armenian and German creators to come centrally during the run of play would also put a heavily reliance on the full-backs to provide additional width, exposing Arsenal’s defensive frailties even further. Much of the same can be said of a 4-2-3-1 in terms of a lack of midfield cover, and though a 4-3-3 on paper seems the most balanced, the fact that Arsenal genuinely lack a deep midfielder who operates on a defense-first mentality raises further concerns.

Making sure the goal production and creative output of Sánchez was always going to be a high priority, but Arsenal will go into the remainder of the season having to rely on a squad that is overloaded on the front-end and lacking in balance. Goal output may increase, but it must be understood that there is no guarantee that his capture will signal a return to the Champions League next season.

From a positive angle, should Özil sign an extension, the club would have four key attacking assets all in their prime playing years to build around, while hopefully progressing younger talents such as Alex Iwobi, Jeff Reine-Adelaide, Reiss Nelson, Rob Holding, and Ainsley Maitland-Niles.

He’s arrived with short comings, a negative reputation in some circles, and heavy expectations of a hopeful immediate return on his investment. He has also given a boost to a disgruntled fan-base, and hope that now, finally, the club will continue to bring in big signings with which they hopefully can compete domestically.

Aubameyang is not without faults as both a footballer and a person. You may not be able to change the person, but you certainly can do what it takes in footballing terms to highlight his good qualities while masking his dificiencies. You do not score the amount of goals he has without having some level of quality. There are better center forwards than him, but few are better at scoring goals outright, even if it does have to come from a system which focuses around his positive traits.

 

But what Arsenal must keep in mind is that it is up to the club, especially it’s manager, to do what is necessary to ensure that their £60m investment does not go down in history as a mistake. The club already have a track record of struggles in terms of bringing out the very best in their players, a notion which is also part of the clubs’ current reality. At the end of the day, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang should not be viewed as a band-aid hoping to adhere to wet skin, but rather a packing bandage that is a catalyst for new growth.

If Arsene Wenger does what it takes and adapts to the player strengths, the deal will come off as a smashing success. I sincerely hope he does, because Auba deserves to be remembered as more than Walcott version 6.0.

 

Andrew Thompson

Andrew Thompson

Don't let the fact that he's American fool you; Andrew Thompson lives and breathes football. Heavily involved in the game since the age of 6 as a player, coach and freelance writer, his passion for the game shines through. An avid Arsenal supporter with an additional fondness of the Bundesliga and youth development at large, while being one of the foremost Dennis Bergkamp enthusiasts, he's happy to continue to show that Americans are a valuable part of the footballing world.
Andrew Thompson
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