The Aubameyang Conundrum: How do Arsenal get the best out of their biggest weekly investment?
By Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)
When Arsenal tied their captain and talisman Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang down to a new extortionate long-term deal in the summer, they must have been aware of the risk involved in doing so. Despite the Gabonese forward shining in the previous campaign, comfortably collecting the club's Player of the Season award and scoring 29 goals in the process, they must have looked deeper, and questioned how sustainable it was for a 31-year-old to maintain this elite level of production in front of goal.
The fact is, 2019/20 was something of a freak season for Aubameyang. He may have been extremely prolific in front of goal, but to counter the basic narrative that he is generally a great finisher, this was the first time he ever possessed elite finishing ability. Since xG records began, the former Dortmund man had never drastically over-performed what is expected of him in front of goal, and had almost always under-performed it. Prior to last season, his best finishing season was 2018/19, where he scored 22 goals from 20.7 xG in the league; a very narrow over-performance which does not signal a particularly great finisher. Last season, he scored 22 goals from 15.8 xG; a huge over-performance that suggest he was absolutely monstrous in front of goal.
The brilliance of Aubameyang has never been his finishing. It's his brilliant off the ball movement and ability to persistently find himself in goal-scoring positions that subsequently has led to him becoming one of Europe's most consistent goal-scorers. The fact that he got so many good chances and scored some of them outweighed some of the big misses he produced.
You might think, well isn't him becoming a good finisher all of a sudden a good thing then? Well, as shown this season, this hasn't sustained, and this was perhaps inevitable. He's scored 9 goals from exactly 9 xG this season- he's reverted to type. Strikers finishing patterns aren't characterised by single seasons; you have to look at the trend throughout their career to formulate a narrative over their finishing. Aubameyang's proficiency last season was something of an anomaly.
The reason his average finishing was not a problem in previous years and didn't prevent him from notching up astounding goal-scoring figures was because of the sheer quantity of chances he was being provided. Before the 2019/20 campaign, Aubameyang managed at least 0.68 xG/90 in every season, and even managed an incredible 0.96 xG/90 at Dortmund in 2017/18, prior to his January move to North London.
Last season, this metric dropped to 0.45 xG/90 and is at 0.4 xG/90 this campaign. This is where the notion that he's in decline has come from, and the Arsenal analytics department should have seriously delved into these numbers when contemplating the new contract offer.
Whilst it could be suggested this drastic drop off in chances created for him is down to the team in general struggling offensively in the past two years, it can't be entirely attributed to that. Alex Lacazette's own xG numbers have not suffered at all (in fact they're at an all time high since he joined the club this season), so the team's own issues cannot have merited this substantial a reduction.
It's probably a result of an inevitable slight loss of the explosive pace he once possessed, which enabled him to get into some of these good positions. It's probably a result of a general loss of some of the predatory in the box instincts he was so known for. It's probably a result of him being stationed on the left for almost all of his minutes in the past two years. It's probably a culmination of all of these factors.
If you're someone who believes a player's xG is almost entirely determined by what the team around them is doing rather than their own off the ball movement, then you have to look at all his metrics to see this decline in tangible form. All his numbers have got worse, which is why his poor season can't be entirely portioned on the team failing to provide for him. Touches in the opposition penalty area, completed dribbles, shot-creating actions, number of shots, aerial duels won and progressive carries are amongst just some of the metrics which have fallen since the start of last season. In reality, the only metric which was actually good from him last season was his goal tally. Now that's inevitably dropped with the rest of them, and everyone's questioning why he's all of a sudden not the player he was.
However, not all hope is lost. It's not all somber. Aubameyang is not finished as a footballer. Although he may never quite replicate the heights he managed in his prime days at Dortmund and first year and a half at Arsenal, there is certainly a few years left in him of elite goal-scoring numbers, and it's up to Arteta to get this out of him and justify the hefty wages we decided to commit to him in September, for another 3 years. Due to this financial commitment, there is no way of getting out of this position now, and we can't afford to have another Mesut Ozil situation on our hands. Thankfully, unlike Ozil, the potential reward for investing in finding solutions for Aubameyang on the pitch is still huge.
Before Arteta gave in to his stubborn reluctance to use Aubameyang centrally this season, the club captain's chances in front of goal were virtually non-existent. From the left, he's notched up just 0.2 xG/90 and only 3 non-penalty goals in over 1,000 Premier League minutes. Centrally, he's managed 0.57 xG/90 in the league, whilst scoring 7 goals from this position in all competitions.
There's clearly a premise to believe the narrative that he is indeed better as a central striker. If you deploy him there, he's likely to receive an abundance of chances, and thus score a lot more goals. This rate of 0.57 xG/90 is just under the standard rates he was getting in his peak years, so in a team that is steadily improving, we should be able to expect something closer to his best if we use him there frequently.
Nevertheless, it's not as straightforward as simply playing him down the middle. You need to construct an attacking trio that is capable of providing for him. The three behind him have to be creators, or technicians as our deputy editor Rob would say. They have to possess both good ball retention and security skills, as well as being able to build attacks and work the ball into the box extremely frequently, without the support of a striker who is going to drop into link the play.
At least two of those behind him must be solely focused on creation, rather than running beyond Aubameyang and being a goal threat. The full-backs must both be capable of also contributing directly to chance creation. Bukayo Saka, Martin Odegaard and Emile Smith Rowe is the perfect trio behind him to maximise his effectiveness, whilst Willian can serve as a foil to all three of them somewhat with his technical security, even if he offers much less dynamism.
More erratic options like Gabriel Martinelli and Nicolas Pepe may add flair and increased goal threat, but both of them deployed either side of Aubameyang may lose some of the needed security in the build up to actually create for the Gabonese at a reliable rate. Essentially, it's all down to the players you pack around him and the subsequent patterns of play you're able to muster up with these players.
Almost entirely building the attacking side of your team around maximising one player's potential may seem like you're inhibiting your tactical flexibility and putting all your eggs in one basket, but as I alluded to earlier, the reward for inducing the best (or near it) of Aubameyang is great. Also, this the position we've put ourselves in and it has to work.
(All Stats via FBRef)