Is Aubameyang actually better centrally than on the left?
By James Whiffing
Arsene Wenger, Unai Emery and Mikel Arteta have all frequently deployed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang out on the left flank, which is normally met with bemusement from the majority of Arsenal fans, who favour the Gabon international as the spearhead in the Gunners attack. It is obvious to see why Arsenal fans want to see our top scorer this season play down the middle: why are we playing one of the world’s most prolific goal scorers further from goal by deploying him on the wing?
Firstly, lets break down the tactics that the managers used when placing Aubameyang on the left wing- more specifically Arteta’s tactics. Since his arrival at Arsenal, the Spaniard has favoured the 4-2-3-1 formation, with the attack consisting of Aubameyang on the left, Alex Lacazette up front and Nicolas Pepe on the right, with Mesut Ozil playing in the ‘Number 10’ role and Saka and Bellerin as the full-backs. Saka has been given the licence to bomb forward and provide width, whilst Bellerin operates as an inverted full-back.
Aubameyang is obviously a better goal scorer than creator (with the Gabonese failing to register an assist in 10 appearances under Mikel Arteta and only creating 0.75 chances per game in the Premier League), so Arteta plays him as an ‘inside forward’. This means that he will use his electric pace to dart in behind the opposition defence in the hope that David Luiz or Granit Xhaka can pick him out with their impressive ball progression abilities. He normally makes these dangerous runs in between the full back and the centre-half, leaving space for Saka to exploit out wide.
A perfect example of this is Aubameyang’s beautifully taken goal against Everton at the Emirates this season. The former Borussia Dortmund man made another of his trademark diagonal runs behind Djibril Sidibe, which was recognised by David Luiz. The Brazilian slipped the ball in between Sidibe and Mina for Aubameyang, who slotted calmly into the bottom right corner.
Another advantage of playing Aubameyang on the left flank is that he won’t get bullied by big, physical centre halves such as Virgil Van Djik and Harry Maguire (where his deficiencies when holding the ball up are very evident) and can instead use his pace to run at full backs. In modern day football, full-backs are better at attacking and tend to bomb forward a lot, leaving space for Aubemayng to exploit on the counter attack using his pace.
Another reason why Arteta frequently plays Aubameyang on the left wing is because he can add another goal-threat to the side. So far under our new head coach, we have seen the ‘Number 9’ position contested between Alexandre Lacazette and Eddie Nketiah – both players who are more than capable of scoring goals. Although he has been out of form for the majority of the season, Lacazette can be crucial to the team due to his valuable link up play and his ability to bring other teammates into the game.
A player like Lacazette can occupy the two centre halves when he plays as a lone central striker and play a ball through to Aubameyang if he makes another diagonal run in behind. A great example of this was Aubameyang’s goal away to Crystal Palace. David Luiz once more fizzed a ball into the feet of Mesut Ozil, who supplied Lacazette. Aubameyang had already made another one of his deadly diagonal runs in behind having caught the full back off guard, and was in behind the centre halves after Lacazette had sucked them in. The Frenchman then stabbed a pass through to Aubameyang, who then used his exquisite finishing skills to round of a devastating team move. This was just one of Lacazette’s six assists to Aubameyang since the start of last season – he is clearly the player that has the best understanding with the Gabonese out of any other in the squad.
Not only does being on the wing make Aubameyang more effective, but it also allows the 30-year-old to track back and help the team defensively. This is crucial, especially since the young and inexperienced Saka is temporarily playing left back whilst the likes of Kieran Tierney and Sead Kolasinac recover from injuries; it takes the immense pressure off of the youngster.
It is also statistically proven that Aubameyang possess a greater goal threat when deployed on the left than he does when in the middle. When starting on the left, he manages a staggering 0.83 goals per 90, whilst down the middle he manages just 0.46 goals per 90. His expected goals per 90 as a left winger and lone forward are very similar, but he marginally manages a greater xG on the left. The 30 year-old has also scored just as many goals from the left flank than he has down the middle despite having significantly fewer shots – suggesting that he is more clinical and ruthless with his chances when deployed down the left, perhaps due to the type of chances that playing this role presents him.
Aubameyang also has more actions per 90 on the left wing for the Gunners than any other position. This suggests that he is more involved in the Gunners build-up play and the defensive side of the game as well. When playing as the lone frontman, he also manages fewer touches in the final third per 90 than both Nketiah and Lacazetrte. We also score more goals as a team with Aubameyang on the left since they are able to get more goal scorers into the side as previously mentioned.
Regardless of where he is deployed, he will score a lot of goals, and is clinical when doing so- this season he has outperformed his xG in every position. Also, the fact that the 30-year-old can play anywhere across the frontline makes him even more valuable to the Gunners than he already is. He has scored a total of 20 goals across 32 appearances this campaign- the Gabon international is gunning for the Premier League golden boot once again, and, with the former Borussia Dortmund man only being 2 goals behind the leading scorer Jamie Vardy, it looks to be a real possibility.
It is absolutely crucial that Arsenal keep hold of Aubameyang, and, at the time of writing this article, the contract talks seem to be back on and are progressing slowly but surely. One thing is for sure – if Arsenal lose Aubameyang, it will be a huge blow to the club, especially since there aren’t many affordable options that the Gunners can bring in to replace him directly.