There was a time when Mikel Arteta counted on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Arsenal could not countenance life without his goals. Aubameyang was their main man, their hero when they beat Chelsea in the FA Cup final in 2020, and Arsenal saw it as a coup when the striker signed a lucrative long-term deal two years ago.
Arteta and Aubameyang: it just made sense. Only, not for long. The good days sped by, the goals dried up and the relationship deteriorated. Determined to improve Arsenal’s culture, Arteta railed against Aubameyang’s shoddy timekeeping. The Spaniard wanted an impressionable young squad to maintain high standards and, armed with a list of Aubameyang’s apparent misdemeanours, he took the ruthless decision to strip his biggest earner of the captaincy and exile him from the first team last season.
It was a huge gamble and plenty of people were questioning Arteta when Arsenal’s top-four challenge fizzled out. Was it insecurity? A coach more at ease with a team of good boys? “Managing big players, big characters – he can’t deal with it,” Aubameyang mused in a leaked video, recorded shortly after he escaped Arsenal and joined Barcelona in January. “Some young players, they don’t say anything …”
And yet, as table-topping Arsenal prepare for what promises to be a feisty reunion with Aubameyang when they visit Chelsea on Sunday, it has become possible to see the logic behind Arteta’s thinking. It was not just about one individual’s struggle to turn up on time. For Arteta, there was also the issue of his football philosophy; the question of whether it was possible to build a multidimensional, hard-pressing attack around a goalscorer who did not offer enough in general play.
How does that decision look now? Arsenal’s young forwards swap positions, run defenders ragged and play with imagination and skill. Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and Martin Ødegaard are exceptional creative talents. Up front, Gabriel Jesus has gone eight games without a goal. The Brazilian has also been key to transforming Arsenal’s attack since joining from Manchester City, making everyone around him better with his assists and selfless movement.
Chelsea, meanwhile, are toiling in sixth and lost 4-1 to Brighton last Saturday. It remains unclear whether signing Aubameyang from Barcelona last summer was a wise move. On the one hand there was a case for signing a potent No 9 to solve their toothlessness and he looked like value at £12m. On the other, there is the dilemma that confronted Arteta: whether there is a place in a modern Premier League attack for a striker whose goals arguably come at the expense of the collective.
At 33, Aubameyang is not going to change. He has convinced at times, scoring three goals in his first five appearances. He has shrugged off Chelsea’s decision to sack Thomas Tuchel, even though the pair had such a productive relationship at Borussia Dortmund. In reality the original idea to sign Aubameyang came from the Chelsea hierarchy, who spotted a bargain when Barça bought Robert Lewandowski. Tuchel, who had rejected proposals to sign Cristiano Ronaldo, happily went along with it. He was not worried about Aubameyang’s character and he saw a role for him, whereas he could not envisage one for Ronaldo.
There was an assumption that Aubameyang was checking whether the ink had dried on his contract when Tuchel was fired. The reunion had lasted five days, but Chelsea reassured Aubameyang that he was part of their plans. There was no drama. He adjusted to life under Graham Potter and did not look like a panic buy when he was ramming in Chelsea’s second during their win over Milan at San Siro.
Popular around the training ground, Aubameyang looked settled and clinical. His movement was sharp and after all the money wasted on trying to fill the void left by Diego Costa’s messy departure in 2017, from the misery of the Álvaro Morata years, through to Timo Werner’s comedy misses and Romelu Lukaku’s infamous take on Tuchel’s tactics, it seemed that Chelsea had finally found a forward unburdened by the pressure of wearing their No 9 shirt.
If he was not as dynamic as Costa and Didier Drogba in their prime, Aubameyang could be relied upon to put the ball in the back of the net. A sharp turn and finish to draw Chelsea level during their 2-1 win over Crystal Palace last month was a flash of class. His goal during Chelsea’s win over Milan at Stamford Bridge, a close-range finish to punish slack defending from Fikayo Tomori, was an example of the poacher at work.
Yet the conversation around Aubameyang has altered a little over the past three weeks. It is not ideal that he has gone six games without scoring before facing Arsenal. He was wasteful during Chelsea’s recent win over RB Salzburg and, unlike Jesus, he is not making up for his lack of goals with the quality of his all-round play. To illustrate the point, Aubameyang has registered no assists and has created no big chances in five league appearances for Chelsea, who remain inconsistent in the final third.
Those numbers are why this still feels like a short-term fix; the kind of signing clubs make when all other alternatives have been exhausted. Chelsea are expected to buy the RB Leipzig forward Christopher Nkunku next summer, Milan’s Rafael Leão is another target, and the sense is that Potter’s ideal attacking template is closer to the one favoured by Arteta. Aubameyang, after all, started the Brighton game on the bench.
Equally Arteta will know there is every chance Aubameyang could slow Arsenal’s momentum this weekend. The class remains intact – but to focus on that would be to miss the point. Arteta had the courage of his convictions and Arsenal are reaping the rewards. They have the incision and Chelsea are playing catch-up, no matter what happens when Aubameyang meets his old teammates on Sunday afternoon.