Soccer

Arsenal transfers: Inside Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s fall from grace as Gunners turn focus to Alexander Isak

As Arsenal scrabble around for goals on the pitch and goal scorers off it, so the fall from grace of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang becomes harder to truly comprehend. The lowest scorers in the Premier League’s top six have one of Europe’s most consistent scorers of the last decade on their books and yet, because he returned to England a day later than promised, he is cast out by Mikel Arteta.

Aubameyang could not have saved them from the most torrid of Januarys. He was at the Africa Cup of Nations with Gabon until he was sent back to London for medical checks after a post-COVID scan revealed “heart lesions.” Those tests gave the striker the all clear; having not played since Dec. 6, he can now take to the football pitch.

In whose colors that will be is not yet clear. For the fourth year in a row, Arsenal are spending January trying to shift their highest earning player, the veteran they were planning to build around, to anywhere that will take him.

Whether they will be successful remains unclear. So far the only offer Arsenal have on the table for Aubameyang comes from Al Nassr, as CBS Sports first revealed on Wednesday. Their Riyadh rivals Al Hilal are also keen, though they have not progressed their interest to a formal offer. Al Nassr’s offer is appealing to the Gunners: a sizeable loan fee, a mandatory purchase clause and the forward’s $340,000-a-week wages covered in the meantime.

Sources close to the situation indicate that Aubameyang would prefer to remain in Europe. So far Paris Saint-Germain, Marseille, AC Milan, Juventus and Sevilla have all expressed an interest in the Arsenal outcast. At least one Premier League club is also considering entering the fray. However, only PSG could theoretically pay the entirety of his salary. If formal offers do come from any of these, they are unlikely to be on as favorable terms as the Saudis’. Such is their desire to move on, the Gunners would be prepared to seriously consider a loan without an option

Meanwhile, work continues on securing Aubameyang’s replacement, whether he leaves or not. A lengthy charm offensive for Dušan Vlahović has not won the Serbian over so far — though if he were to commit, Arsenal and Fiorentina are poised to swiftly agree the specifics of the transfer — meaning renewed interest in Alexander Isak of Real Sociedad. Technical director Edu Gaspar and manager Mikel Arteta are desperate to not leave striking business to the summer with a berth in the Premier League’s top four seemingly up for grabs. That means accepting that some long-term targets will not be on the market; CBS Sports understands there has, for instance, been no contact between Arsenal and Lille over Jonathan David, a player they have long admired.

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They believe that Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, the $136 million strike duo signed in Arsene Wenger’s final days, are not up to the task of getting them fourth. A return of 30 league goals since the start of last season, six of them penalties, suggests they might have a point. Equally, if clubs that are Arsenal’s footballing contemporaries are taking a look at Aubameyang, it raises the question as to what they are seeing that Arteta is not. Since being stripped of the captaincy, the mention of the 32-year-old’s name in any media environment has been guaranteed to raise the manager’s hackles.

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Speaking after Sunday’s goalless draw with Burnley, Arteta did all he could to maneuver elsewhere a question over whether Arsenal’s struggles in front of goal — and he was entitled to note that in December there were no such issues — might impact the former skipper’s future. He declined to confirm whether Aubameyang would be on the plane for the winter camp in Dubai when they fly off on Thursday. If the club get their way, he will be close to securing an exit by then.

The breakdown of their relationship is all the more curious when player and manager had formed such a tightknit bond during the previous 18 months. Sources close to Aubameyang have long insisted that it was Arteta’s presence at the Emirates Stadium that convinced him to sign a new contract in the summer of 2020. As the forward struggled in front of goal in the months that followed, Arteta’s support was steadfast. 

Ten days before axing Aubameyang from the squad, his manager was praising the forward’s effort even if the goals were not flowing. “To put the ball in the net or not can be a difference of millimeters or by a second; Auba has that capacity and hasn’t lost that capacity,” Arteta said on Dec. 1. 

What changed was Aubameyang’s late arrival back from France, one which had implications on the club’s COVID-19 protocols. As the club noted when it stripped their captain of the armband, this was not the first disciplinary breach, the most notable had been his late arrival ahead of the north London derby in March. Aubameyang had been dropped for that game but CBS Sports understands he was not fined. Sources close to events have since indicated their surprise that Arsenal went to such extreme measures so swiftly.

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Those around the player were not the only ones befuddled. Former Gunners striker Emmanuel Adebayor told Sky Sports: “I know he is going to go through a lot. That’s Arsenal for you. They never learned how to forgive.”

It may be that Arteta expects higher standards of his club captain. It should, of course, be noted that Aubameyang never asked for the captaincy, it was a responsibility that was thrust on him after the previous skipper, Granit Xhaka, swore at supporters as he was being substituted in a draw with Crystal Palace in October 2019. The armband has not always sat easily on Aubameyang, who deferred some of his duties to his No. 2 Hector Bellerin during the meetings of Premier League captains in the summer of 2020.

Still, Aubameyang persevered, his role ever changing in an Arsenal side that was infrequently set up to best exploit him. Having won a Golden Boot as part of a strike tandem with Lacazette, the former Borussia Dortmund striker’s best form under Arteta came in a 3-4-3 system in which his defensive role was minimal and he could function as an approximation of Mohamed Salah: Getting the ball in advanced areas on the left channel, cutting infield onto his strongest foot and shooting for goal. 

Though it is not where the bulk of his goals are scored from, Aubameyang has a particular sweet spot around the inside of the penalty area, to the left of the box. In Premier League and Europa League matches from the 2019-20 season onwards, he took 45 shots from that area worth a combined 2.87 expected goals (xG). He scored nine times. As Arsenal were winning the FA Cup, their superpower as a team seemed to be getting their star forward into that spot.

Aubameyang’s shots from the inside left channel around the box since the start of the 2019-20 Premier League and Europa League season. The size of a bubble reflects its expected goals value
TruMedia

However, for much of the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons they struggled to get Aubameyang in those spots. They struggled to find him in any, really. His final third open play touches per 90 minutes have declined in both of the past two seasons; last term, he spent too much time marooned on the left, chasing opposition full backs and shuttling back and forth. This season, he has been used both as a decoy running line leader, most notably in the north London derby win over Tottenham where he stretched the field so Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka could make merry.

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It was not long after that game that Arteta was saying to the media: “Do you see the way he runs, the purpose he has to press the ball, and when he takes it his movement, his link, how [he] is leading the game?”

None of this is to contend that Aubameyang would necessarily have saved Arsenal from their dry January, nor to argue that he is not a player in decline. His xG per 90 minutes, 0.53 in his Golden Boot-winning 2018-19 season, has stabilized at 0.32 in the past two seasons. The turbo boost of pace has not always been as apparent as it was when he arrived from Borussia Dortmund.

Arsenal’s motives for making an upgrade are clear. They need a better striker now and for the future, Isak may be that man. It is perhaps harder to understand the rush to move on from Aubameyang altogether in terms other than tidying up a wage bill that Josh Kroenke has long been keen to push downwards. His discipline has been questionable, but 2021 was a tumultuous year for the player, one in which he has suffered from two bouts of COVID-19, contracted malaria and seen his mother suffer with serious illness.

He has already proven as an option off the bench that he can get into scoring positions, as he did when he spurned a point-winning opportunity against Everton in his last appearance for the Gunners. Unlike Lacazette or even Eddie Nketiah, he manages to consistently find himself in positions to get shots away. He may miss some high-profile opportunities, as all forwards do, but the key is he gets them.

As Arteta looked around on his bench, he had no one with Aubameyang’s history of scoring, his ability to find the net on a regular basis. Even if his squad was back to full fitness, bolstered by the talismanic new forward he wants, it may be that the Arsenal manager’s options consistent of Lacazette, Nketiah, Nicolas Pepe and Emile Smith Rowe. All other things being equal, none represents a better option for a late goal than Aubameyang.

That is saying nothing of what happens if Vlahović, Isak or another striker cannot be secured in the next week. As Manchester United falter, there is quite the prize within Arsenal’s reach this season. It would undoubtedly make it harder to grasp if Aubameyang went unused or unreplaced.


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