Arsenal drought shines light on Mikel Arteta’s misuse of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang

Vithushan Ehantharajah
·5 min read
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has been misused by Arsenal in recent weeks (Getty)
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has been misused by Arsenal in recent weeks (Getty)

In the 44th minute, Leicester City launched a rare counter-attack. Arsenal were out of position and, for once, Leicester had bodies to spare.

But as James Maddison carried the ball forward with Harvey Barnes and Dennis Praet for company, like three close-up magicians sizing up a bank vault, the move petered out. Or rather, it took a detour.

The ball made its way from one flank to the other. Arsenal were able to reset, and Leicester did not mind that one bit, playing about in front of the box with no intention of over-committing in order to breach it.

On the face of it, that and other moments like it were deeply frustrating. Like sneezes that never quite come to pass.

Teasing something more but never delivering. Until, of course, the ultimate release with 10 minutes to go when Jamie Vardy headed in his 11th goal in 12 games against Arsenal to seal a 1-0 win.

Vardy wheels away in delightGetty
Vardy wheels away in delightGetty

It was not quite smash-and-grab, but more a bit of old school rope-a-dope. Brendan Rodgers organised Leicester to ensure their lines were “tight”. Well enough that even though the 4-3-3 they were up against on paper morphed into something quite different, with Kieran Tierney and Hector Bellerin up alongside their opposition full-backs, they could cope.

Arteta had a slightly different take: “It’s very difficult to create chances against 10 men behind the ball.” Factually accurate, of course, but a statement that requires very few ingredients to curdle and turn sour.

Nevertheless, one man’s tactical masterstroke is another man’s parked bus. Perhaps, though, the key revelation from Sunday night is that by not being attacked, Arsenal’s attacking was considerably limited.

Coming into the weekend against a side with the third-lowest number of shots on goal this season, Leicester saw no reason to offer up unnecessary opportunities in transition. And with Vardy good for 30 minutes and little more, parking their counter-attacking ways, if done correctly, was only an hour-long job.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has been misused by Arsenal in recent weeksGetty
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has been misused by Arsenal in recent weeksGetty

That it worked so well owed to a bit of luck - a disallowed goal and a glaring miss from Alexandre Lacazette – and to a dearth in creativity that left them heavily reliant on counter-attacks.

That was not necessarily a problem earlier this year, scoring 30 in their final 17 matches of the 2019/20 season, the fifth-most from the start of 2020 to the 27 July finish. But with just eight goals in the first six games of 2020/21, there is now a serious cause for concern. We can claim the rainbow with this rain in the seven goals conceded – a record only bettered by Aston Villa’s five (albeit from one game fewer) – but what does that matter when three of the six matches have ended in defeat?

On Sunday night, there was one figure who summed up this attacking malaise. A once bright spark and social media phenom, now a dour sight on the periphery of it all, well-moneyed and desperate to stay relevant to on-field plans.

When Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang penned a new three-year deal after the most protracted of negotiations followed by carnival celebrations when he signed, no one – certainly not him – would have imagined a month later he would be where he is now. Not simply in the midst of a run of four league matches without a goal for the first time since 2014, a single goal to his name so far, but spending most of his time on the right when the left has consistently been an ally.

As part of a front three against Leicester with Lacazette and Buyako Saka, Aubameyang was the most withdrawn. He spent his time around the halfway line in the first-half, winning tackles (two) and regaining possession (six times). Across 90 minutes plus five of stoppage time, he touched the ball just once in the opposition box - a stretching header that was more apologetic than threatening. When he eventually got a chance on the left once Saka was taken off for Nicolas Pepe on 65 minutes, he created a chance for Bellerin – the only shot Arsenal had in the second half.

Aubameyang himself was able to get off two shots, taking his season tally to just eight. That is a dip in trend with the team. In 2018/19, Arsenal averaged 12.3 shots a match. That dropped to 10.7 in 2019/20. Now, at this early stage of the new campaign, it is 8.8.

Across that same period, the Gabon forward has scored 45 of the side’s 133 league goals (over a third). And, granted, we’re hardly blowing minds here by pointing out Aubameyang shooting less will lead to Arsenal scoring less. But, for that same reason, there seems a pretty straightforward fix for this problem.

The creativity behind the front three will come, especially as Thomas Partey grows into his role. If Saka on the left is to be persisted with, Aubameyang could go through the middle, in place of Lacazette who is too limited in wide positions. That would require giving Nicolas Pepe a go on the right, a player many Arsenal fans are done with, while Willian returns to fitness or Reiss Nelson steps up in a big way.

It should be said, these combinations have been tried before. Each having their moments but never enough of them to avoid these conversations. But whatever reaction Arteta has from this defeat - a third in four - should include the consideration that Arsenal are losing more than they are gaining by using Aubameyang as they are right now. The focus towards greater stability is noble, but at what point is it counter-productive when you're asking your one trusted match-winner to play within himself?

Both sides at the Emirates had a prolific goalscorer at their disposal. The one that made the key difference played only half-an-hour. Arteta might not like how Rodgers set-up, but, ultimately, he won by making better use of his best player.