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Nine touches – and four were kick-offs: What Aubameyang’s downfall tells us about Arsenal

An anonymous showing in the Blues’ defeat to the Gunners highlights the change in approach under Mikel Arteta

Richard Jolly
Senior Football Correspondent
Wednesday 03 May 2023 10:46 BST
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(EPA)

Some 44 percent of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s touches came from the centre spot. As Arsenal’s former captain returned to the Emirates Stadium, he revisited one particular part of the pitch. In the heady days of the Gunners’ first success under Mikel Arteta, they won an FA Cup final against Chelsea with two goals from Aubameyang. When Arteta pitted his wits against Frank Lampard again, and with Aubameyang having traded sides, three of his slender tally of nine touches were the direct result of Arsenal goals, four in total from kick-offs.

It was an ignominious homecoming for perhaps Arsenal’s deadliest forward since Robin van Persie. These days Aubameyang plies his trade for a team with 30 fewer league goals than Brighton – an exclamation mark could be put after either 30 or Brighton – and Arteta has long since won the argument.

Arsenal are better without Aubameyang. They didn’t need a particularly one-sided encounter with Chelsea to prove that. Yet the manner of it illustrated how and why. They have replaced the striker by not replacing him. They had a five-month interregnum at the end of last season, when there was a case for arguing that exiling Aubameyang so early cost them Champions League football - in a campaign when no striker got more than five league goals and they were outscored by the top four.

A minor milestone in Aubameyang’s unhappy comeback, camouflaged by the grim statistics cataloguing Chelsea’s decline, came when Gabriel Jesus scored Arsenal’s third goal; it was his tenth of the Premier League campaign.

Only 17 players are in double figures in the entire division and almost a quarter of those belong to Arsenal. Three of the top ten are Gunners, and none of them is a striker.

And if that might have been different if Jesus, who boasts the best goals-per-minute ratio in the squad, had been fit all season, it is nevertheless the case that Arteta has found a new model of getting goals, a more egalitarian one. There is a collective commitment now. There is individual improvement, too.

Four players are already on career-best tallies. Granit Xhaka is one but there’s a more potent trio: Gabriel Martinelli still possess the advantage with 15 but Bukayo Saka was leapfrogged against Chelsea by Martin Odegaard. A clinical brace took the Norwegian to 14, a number that seemed improbable when he ended last season with seven.

(Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

“This year I’ve scored more goals,” said the captain. “I just try to help the team.” Arteta was more illuminating. He has taken a technical talent and injected a scorer’s ethos, programming him to make runs into the penalty box, decreeing that decorating matches was not enough; Odegaard had to determine them. “That’s what we had to get out of him, he’s got the talent but he needed to occupy different spaces and become a threat, and to have a mentality to win matches, not just to control games and I think that’s changed,” he said.

Taking gifted players and making them prolific is not that simple; look at Chelsea, who have a raft of wingers and No.10s and, in all competitions, a laughably low return of 16 goals in 27 games. But there is something of his mentor in Arteta’s approach. Pep Guardiola has long eschewed the idea that scoring is a specialist skill and instead added goals to other players’ games: Riyad Mahrez, Kevin de Bruyne, Ilkay Gundogan and Raheem Sterling have all had their most productive campaigns under Guardiola. He is the manager who won titles either without a striker or when the centre-forward was outscored by players coming from deeper or wider positions.

Arteta has tried to follow suit: he bought a selfless striker, in Jesus, and turned Saka and Martinelli into greater forces in the penalty box. Both are also among seven Arsenal players with at least five assists: there is a shared responsibility to chip in.

(AP)

The paradox is that Arteta now imbues Guardiola’s ethos more than the Manchester City manager. Guardiola builds a mountain of goals on the work of the relentless Erling Haaland. The Norwegian has 34 of City’s 84; it amounts to 40 percent and, three years ago, Aubameyang scored 39 percent of Arsenal’s goals. But his impressive return of 22 came in a team that scored just 56; it was then Arsenal’s lowest total for 24 years.

Now they are on 81, only three behind City and with 29 in their last ten league games. If Arsenal don’t win the league, it won’t be for a lack of firepower.

Whether or not they do, they are on course to outstrip even the best of Arsene Wenger’s teams. At their current rate of progress, they will get 90 top-flight goals, something they last did in 1963-64. A policy of having a group of scorers looks an unquestioned triumph. Aubameyang seems the man trapped on the wrong side of history, the scorer cast aside so Arsenal could score more.

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