All Auba? For a joyful Arsenal, that was the story again. Auba and out? They will just have to wait and see. If there were any doubts that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is the best striker in England, a born alchemist in a team that has often resembled a clump of lead, then the wrong-footed chip that won the FA Cup rendered them mere whispers. It would only be slightly unfair to say he has salvaged a grim season single-handedly and the real question, now, is whether that gossamer touch has sealed his future.
Scratch that: it is as well to ask whether, as the ball floated over Willy Caballero, it secured Arsenal’s too. Aubameyang may have dodged questions about any new contract in the aftermath of his latest star turn, but Mikel Arteta laid the issue down clearly enough moments later. Arteta wants to build a team around Aubameyang; to rely on him less while creating a structure that serves him more. Perhaps it is in the manager’s favour that, when player and club return to the negotiating table, both parties are now in a position to show stronger hands.
In Aubameyang’s case the numbers have always spoken for themselves. His equaliser, dispatched from the spot, was the 69th goal he had scored since joining in January 2018. No player in the division has managed that but plenty have operated in better-functioning sides. Yet there is a gathering sense that he could not be operating under a more appropriate manager. When Arteta took control of Arsenal for the first time, on Boxing Day, Aubameyang had scored five times in his previous 14 games and was enduring the patchiest run of his time at a sullen, brooding institution. Arteta instantly made a project of restoring his spirits: 16 goals in 22 subsequent appearances would suggest he has succeeded and, given the rapid improvements he has simultaneously wrought in the wider unit, the Spaniard’s claim that Aubameyang should stay where he feels loved looks increasingly persuasive.
At Wembley there were still flickers of the maddening traits that might make him think twice. What happens, for example, if Aubameyang’s radar goes awry? When Arsenal’s back-line imploded against Olympiakos in the Europa League, he beat himself up for missing a sitter with the final kick. This time he should have put a third-minute header on target, as a minimum, and Arsenal were trailing almost immediately. Christian Pulisic’s goal came after Chelsea had sliced through a vacant midfield with two passes and at moments like that you would offer more than a penny for the captain’s thoughts. Oh really? I’ve got to do all this again?
Like all the greats, Aubameyang simply got on with it. He had tried the inside-left run that eventually drew César Azpilicueta’s foul several times since kick-off, Arteta clearly having scented success in that area, and persistence paid off when Kieran Tierney played a near-replica of the ball that had served Aubameyang’s second goal against Manchester City in the last four. He just keeps going and it is why, even at 31, he would fit in any elite side: one that passes, one that presses, one that does anything in between. He has adapted to both approaches under his three managers at Arsenal, let alone the rest of his career. His strike rate constitutes a hefty percentage of what a team needs: it is hard not to wonder what might play out if Arteta can mould the rest.
The winner was casually breathtaking and certainly not of a piece with his fumbled trophy lift, which drew mirth from his teammates. If you wanted, you could make your jokes: Aubameyang was out of practice, after all. But Arteta reiterated his oft-stated belief that “moments like this will help him believe we are on the right path” – his conviction offered a contrast to the captain’s post-match coyness.
However the coming weeks play out, Aubameyang will come to be viewed as a modern Arsenal great whose extraordinary quality cut through in strange, troubled times. If he required a lesson in longevity he only had to look at a banner draped between the top and middle tiers of Wembley’s west-facing goal, the one opposite to which he had applied the coup de grace. It had been designed in tribute to the adored club director, Ken Friar, who had a milestone to celebrate along with the 13th FA Cup success of his lifetime. “Thank you for 70 years,” it read. “A lifetime of dedication.” Nobody is asking Aubameyang to be stalking the Highbury House corridors at 85, but another two or three years would do perfectly.