In sports, one of the truest aphorisms is “when it rains, it pours.” When a team is in the midst of a bad run of form, it becomes easy for pundits everywhere to point blame wherever they like with impunity. No one is safe from the aspersions - players, coaches, owners, and anyone in between. But, like clockwork, there will always be talking heads ready like lions to pounce onto the wounded gazelle of a tail-spinning club, patting themselves on the back for pointing out the obvious while picking their teeth with the bones.
Arsenal have been an easy source of derision this season, as hit after hit has seen the club (deservedly) in the cross hairs of journalists, pundits, and former players. With the Gunners in the midst of a four game losing streak, there has been ample fodder for the talking heads. Following Sunday’s capitulation to Brighton & Hove Albion, former Arsenal star Alan Smith struck out at the Gunners’ recent record signing, striker Pierre Emerick Aubameyang, accusing him of being a “shadow of the player he was at Borussia Dortmund”.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang criticised by former Arsenal striker Alan Smith after making slow start to Gunners career https://t.co/aCbKyf4Fio— MailOnline Sport (@MailSport) March 5, 2018
Aubameyang, the Gabonese international, was a prolific scorer in the Bundesliga during his tenure at Borussia Dortmund, utilizing his blazing speed and lethal finishing to net 98 times between signing in 2013 and his departure in 2018. He was signed during a particularly dizzying January transfer window, brought in to offset the loss of goal scorer Alexis Sanchez to rival Manchester United and add much-needed pace to the Arsenal attack following the departure of known speedsters Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain to Liverpool at the beginning of the season and Theo Walcott to Everton in January.
While he has yet to make the type of impact for Arsenal that he did for Borussia Dortmund, many people are complaining that Smith’s comments are too short-sighted and reactionary, as Aubameyang has only been with the club for a little over a month and has only featured in four matches. But, for the sake of argument, let’s look at some stats and numbers.
System of Play
First, before even taking into account the stats, you have to look at the systems. The majority of Aubameyang’s career at BVB was spent under Jurgen Klopp, whose system was attack-oriented and predicated on gegenpressing and counter attacking. In that system, Aubameyang flourished as the sole striker, where his pace was regularly utilized to get in behind the opposing defense after BVB won the ball high up the pitch. The majority of his 98 goals came within 12 yards of the goal, and he often found himself with ample room to slot the ball home after a quick counter attack.
Arsenal have been traditionally known for Wenger’s fluid, beautiful link-up play that, when executed properly, results in intricate, precise passing into a favorable attacking position either at the top of the box or in the middle of it. However, when not counter-attacking, Arsenal are also known for possession-based football, regularly utilizing a midfielder or outside back to hold up the ball, allowing attacking players to get forward before attacking as a team. This style requires patience, precision, vision, and selflessness.
However, this style is also painfully predictable and easy to defend, as many teams have shown over the past decade, happily parking the bus in the middle of the box, content to concede possession as Arsenal pass around the box, looking for a cross. Simply put: when Arsene’s system works, it is a work of art. When it doesn’t, it is uninspiring and redundant.
The signing of Aubameyang was met with criticism not over his skill, but over his ability to fit into the style of play that Arsene utilizes and the physical nature of the Premier League. While Aubameyang is greatly skilled, he excels primarily as a point man, comfortable directly in front of the goal where he can get a deflection or a calculated shot from a close angle within the box, as opposed to a creator, which Arsene likes all of his attackers to be.
For all of the stick given to Alexis Sanchez for his knack for dribbling the ball into bad positions, he was also phenomenal at being a creator as much as a finisher, deftly lofting balls into a tight window for another player to finish. The departed Olivier Giroud was another dual-threat player that adapted to Arsene’s style greatly, as he could use his size to protect the ball or utilize a feather-soft touch to play on another attacker. Aubameyang is without question a world-class player, but he is not a typical Arsene Wenger striker, which is a large reason for many pundits questioning whether or not he was the right player for Arsenal to pursue.
Aubameyang’s star rose rapidly once he joined Borussia Dortmund and he started banging in goals at a fantastic rate, scoring no less than 13 goals per season. Following Sunday’s debacle, here’s how Aubameyang’s Arsenal career has begun: 4 games played, 2 goals scored, 1.6 shots per match (including the penalty), 0.59 xG per match (includes the penalty) and 0.91 xG chain per match. Auba is also averaging 19.2 touches per match, with 3.6 touches in the box per match. Here’s another look at that data:
While the stats are kinda grim, there is one last thing to consider: competition.
If you look at the stats in a vacuum, they aren’t pretty, but thankfully, games aren’t played in a vacuum. Aubameyang joined Arsenal right before Arsenal faced a slate of games against the likes of current league-leaders Manchester City and fourth-place blood rivals Tottenham. Regardless of Aubameyang’s signing, this slate of games was already wildly unfavorable for an Arsenal team low on confidence, identity, and goal scorers.
Spurs are fielding what is perhaps their best team ever, and playing some of the best football in Europe, while City are effortlessly running away with the title at a rate that would impress Usain Bolt. To call either City or Spurs “in-form” would be to call a hurricane a storm, while calling Arsenal “out-of-form” would be generous. The Everton demolition aside, the cards were stacked against Arsenal and Aubameyang before the games could even be played.
Against City in league play, Aubameyang managed 2 shots and a player rating of 5.70, missing a goal-scoring opportunity after his penalty kick was saved. Against Tottenham, he managed 0 shots and had a player rating of 5.88. Both teams successfully limited consistent service to Aubameyang and neutered Arsenal’s attack. Against the two teams not in the top four, Aubameyang has scored twice and averaged a player rating of 7.76. With Watford, Southampton, and Newcastle on deck, Aubameyang has an opportunity to improve those stats and prove his worth against manageable opposition (although what is manageable for this Arsenal squad remains to be seen) and make his mark before the season’s end.
So, is it fair to call a player who has only featured in 4 matches a flop? Of course not. Is it nonetheless concerning that both Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette have failed to consistently find the back of the net this season for the Gunners after becoming record signings? Absolutely. But that speaks to a much greater problem with the club, and I think we all know what that is.