Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had never previously scored a free kick for Arsenal but his winner against Aston Villa two Sundays ago came as little surprise. He has made a habit of bailing this Arsenal side out of trouble.
Matteo Guendouzi was the driving force behind the comeback, of course, the youngster producing another outstanding performance in the heart of midfield following Ainsley Maitland-Niles’ first-half sending-off. Who else but Aubameyang, though, to strike the decisive blow?
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And where, exactly, would Arsenal be without him?
It hardly bears thinking about but take his goals away this season and the answer is that they would be sandwiched between Newcastle and Watford in the relegation zone. From his opening-day strike at St James’ Park – described as “genius” by the watching Jose Mourinho – to that free kick against Villa, Aubameyang’s goals have won eight of Arsenal’s 11 points.
It was fitting that he was wearing the captain’s armband for his latest intervention. Aubameyang has become more important to Arsenal than ever lately, leading from the front and papering over cracks elsewhere in the team. But he has always been their difference-maker.
Since his arrival from Borussia Dortmund on the final day of the January transfer window in 2018, his goals have won them 31 points. No other player at any other Premier League side even gets close to that total.
It has been a testing period for Arsenal, from Arsene Wenger’s chaotic final months in charge to the all-too-frequent setbacks under his successor, Unai Emery, but Aubameyang has still succeeded in living up to his goalscoring reputation. His total of 38 in the Premier League puts him second only to Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah in the same time-frame.
His scoring rate has been historically good. In the Premier League era, Aubameyang’s average of a goal every 114 minutes is only bettered by Sergio Aguero among players to have scored a minimum of 30 goals. Kane and Salah trail him and so too do Ruud van Nistelrooy, Luis Suarez and – whisper it – Thierry Henry, the man whose No 14 shirt he has inherited.
Aubameyang has a long way to go to rival Henry’s longevity in the Premier League, of course, and he can only dream of matching his trophy haul at Arsenal. But his scoring feats are all the more impressive given that – in addition to the adverse circumstances at Arsenal – he has often been deployed on the flanks rather than at No 9.
From wherever he plays, though, Aubameyang can usually find a way to goal. That’s how it went at Saint-Etienne, where he scored 41 times in 97 games, and how it continued at Dortmund, where he hit 141 goals in 213 appearances. At Arsenal, his overall total now stands at 48 in 72.
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Jurgen Klopp, his manager at Dortmund, described him as an “incredible finisher” recently, and while it is true that he misses some chances he should score – he spurned one glorious second-half opportunity against Villa last Sunday – he frequently scores those he shouldn’t. Since January 2018, his shot conversion rate is second only to Jamie Vardy’s.
Is Aubameyang underappreciated?
Aubameyang is cherished by Arsenal supporters, but despite his stellar record, and despite the fact that he has thrived in three of Europe’s top leagues over a period of almost a decade, there is still a sense that he is not lauded as widely as many of his contemporaries.
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It is, perhaps, because he is seen as a pure goalscorer rather than an all-rounder. Aubameyang is prolific, his pace electrifying, but there are plenty who would argue that he brings little else to the table. Many Arsenal fans – until recently, at least – would opt for Alexandre Lacazette if they could only keep one of the two.
Klopp, though, insisted there are “no real weaknesses” in Aubameyang’s game earlier this season and the statistics highlight a creative streak to complement his finishing ability. Since January 2018 in the Premier League, Aubameyang has created more chances than Harry Kane. He has registered nearly twice as many assists as Sadio Mane.
There is a certain single-mindedness to many of the most prolific goalscorers. Cristiano Ronaldo’s obsession is such that he goes home angry when he doesn’t score. Kane has been known to claim goals off his own team-mates. Only last month, tensions boiled over at Liverpool after Salah refused to pass to Mane during their 3-0 win over Burnley.
Man Utd vs Arsenal
September 30, 2019, 7:00pm
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But Aubameyang is different. Despite a scoring record which places him among the very best, he is a fundamentally unselfish player.
He was praised for his decision to hand Arsenal’s penalty to Nicolas Pepe against Villa last weekend, allowing the £72m summer signing to score his first goal for the club, and it was not the first time he has prioritised a team-mate’s confidence over his own personal ambition.
In March 2018, and despite being on a hat-trick having scored once from the spot already, he handed a late penalty to Lacazette during a 3-0 win over Stoke at the Emirates Stadium. “I think strikers who are generous are a rarity,” said Wenger afterwards. “When you see it, you are very happy because you know it will make the team much better.”
Lacazette had only scored once in his previous 13 games, but sure enough, with his confidence enhanced by his team-mate’s generosity, he went on to fire seven goals in his final nine appearances of the season. The hope for Arsenal is that Pepe will profit from Aubameyang’s selflessness in the same way. “That decision shows a really great player,” said Emery on Sunday.
It is part of the reason why he is so popular among his team-mates. Aubameyang was seen as a rival to Lacazette when he arrived at Arsenal. Instead, they have become close friends. He is a mentor to the club’s young players and his willingness to place the interests of the group above his own can also be seen in how he has embraced different roles on the pitch without complaint.