On the afternoon of September 15, the shoppers in Arsenal’s flagship store were treated to an unexpected surprise. As they were browsing the shelves, the television screens in the shop suddenly cut to a live feed from within the home dressing room at the Emirates Stadium.
The stream showed a table in the middle of the room, on which there was an hourglass, a pen and a piece of paper. Then came a captain’s armband, followed by a superhero mask. Eventually, after a few more minutes, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang also arrived, to announce to the fans – in live time – that he had finally signed his new contract.
Across the world, more than 250,000 people tuned in to view Aubameyang’s announcement. Millions more viewers have since watched it back. The stream was the result of weeks of planning by club staff, all desperate to maximise the impact of a deal that symbolised a new era of positivity under Mikel Arteta.
The underlying message from Arsenal was clear: that Aubameyang is a global star, worthy of a groundbreaking approach to something as straightforward as a footballer extending the terms of his employment. This was not just any old contract signing, Arsenal were implying. This was the contract signing of the decade, the statement deal that meant so much to the future of the club.
It all put considerable pressure on Aubameyang and, although he has never been afraid to embrace his own stardom, expectations were raised even higher of Arsenal’s FA Cup final-winning hero. It is an unfortunate reality for him and the club that, so far this season, he has not come close to reaching them.
As he prepares to face Tottenham Hotspur on Sunday, Arsenal’s talisman looks a significantly more blunt attacking force than he did just three months ago. He has scored only two goals in the Premier League this season, and only one from open play. The chances are not coming, the movement is not as sharp and the goalscoring burden appears heavy.
In recent years, the north London derby has provided newspapers and broadcasters with an opportunity to pitch Aubameyang against Harry Kane, as if they were heavyweight boxers. The comparisons have usually been fair, but this time it is not even a contest. While Kane continues to thrive as perhaps Europe’s most complete centre-forward, Aubameyang goes into this derby on his worst run of form for more than five years.
So what is going wrong? And, crucially, how much of it is his fault? The primary point is that Aubameyang is the most obvious victim of Arsenal’s creativity problem in the Premier League. Put simply, he is failing to score goals because his team-mates are failing to create goalscoring opportunities for him. Going into this weekend’s action, only two Premier League sides (Leicester City and Burnley) have created fewer chances than Arsenal this season.
The nature of Aubameyang’s style of play means he is reliant on a well-functioning team behind him. Some of Europe’s leading forwards, and Kane is perhaps one of the finest examples here, are capable of creating and scoring goals on their own. By contrast, Aubameyang is not particularly adept at holding up the ball, nor is he the sort of player who dribbles beyond opponents to open up space.
Above all, Aubameyang is a predator who relies on his instincts and his movement within the penalty box. If the service is not there, that movement counts for nothing. It is telling, for example, that 53 per cent of his goals for Arsenal have been first-time finishes, with the striker applying the last touch to a decisive pass or cross.
Kane, on the other hand, has more variety to his goalscoring – only 44 per cent of his goals since Aubameyang joined Arsenal have been first-time finishes. The Englishman has also scored 17 headers in that time, compared to Aubameyang’s three.
Unfortunately for Arteta, who saw his side play 30 open-play crosses in their defeat by Wolves last weekend, a hopeful ball into the box will rarely result in a goal for his captain. Aubameyang is not one to feed off scraps. Instead he relies on the precision and speed of the delivery.
Aubameyang has also not been helped by the collapse in confidence of his great friend, Alexandre Lacazette. In Unai Emery’s first season at the club, 2018/19, their partnership was the most effective and dangerous aspect of Arsenal’s play. Now, though, the connection has broken down: in the Premier League this season, Lacazette has played on average fewer than one pass per game to Aubameyang, compared to 2.5 passes per game in the 2018/19.
How encouraging it must have been, then, to see Lacazette produce a terrific individual display in Thursday’s Europa League win over Rapid Vienna. At his best, the Frenchman is the link between the midfield and Aubameyang – if he can return to form, Aubameyang might just explode into life once more.
Of course, a derby win can galvanise a team. There would be no better place for Aubameyang to rediscover his form. “I think this is the game that we have to make into a turning point for us this season,” he said.
“There is nothing better than this game to give you that opportunity to turn things around. We have to understand that if we can win this game, then everyone will change their mindset.”