Arsenal have pushed their chips into the table for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
February 1, 2018

If ever a transfer suited a fanbase, it’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s move to Arsenal. Recent frictions aside, Aubameyang remains a star of the European game and his footballing celebrity will go some way to balming the bruises felt from Alexis Sanchez’s departure.

Conveniently, he’s also the kind of player who Arsene Wenger has often been accused of failing to sign in the past. Each and every summer for the past five years, Arsenal have been attached to a name-recognised forward and, with the recent capture of Alexandre Lacazette aside, each summer they’ve come up empty.

This, then, is the most peculiar of Wenger deals: concluded mid-season, a club-record fee, and for a player in the latter stages of his prime. Aubameyang is not being purchased for what he might be in two or three years time, but for his here and now worth.

In all likelihood, he’ll prove that worth very quickly. He’s exactly the kind of pacy, smart-finishing forward who is built to flourish atop of Arsenal’s formation and should multiply the merits of both Mesut Ozil and fellow new signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan, with whom he has historic chemistry.

In the rush to usher a new headliner into the Premier League though, perhaps some inconvenient details are being skipped over. The first concerns Lacazette, whose natural place in the team Aubameyang would appear to be taking. He may not exclusively be a centre-forward, but with the supporting roles behind the front line presumably reserved for Ozil and Mkhitaryan, the Frenchman’s position – and hence his future – is now unclear.

But file that under “good problem to have”: ego management is certainly tricky, but no side ever suffered from having too many available goalscorers – and, besides, the real victim in this situation is Danny Welbeck, who struggles for opportunities at the best of times and is now further away from the first-team than ever before.

Harder to overlook, though, is the theoretical cultural impact. Alexis Sanchez’s last days at the club were miserable. As his commitment wavered and his petulance grew, so the atmosphere around the team as a whole worsened. Sanchez didn’t want to play for Arsenal and his teammates resented his brazen flaunting of that disinterest – to the point, ultimately, where his departure would become a relief. The player’s literal contribution has been lost and it would be contrary to claim that he won’t be missed, but a calmer atmosphere is certainly compensatory and seems to have energised a spritely run of form.

But then, Aubameyang isn’t so different. His career at Borussia Dortmund ended in similar acrimony, with the club tiring of his frequent flaunting of team discipline. The German club have had to exclude the forward from the first-team on three separate occasions over the past twelve months and, in spite of an initial appetite for appeasement, had finally grown tired of the player.

A change of club always brings a fresh start, but the suspicion must be that Wenger has eliminated one troubling element from his dressing-room, only to replace it with another. It’s also hard to ignore the symmetry between Arsenal and Dortmund and to note the creeping distance between what they were and what they currently now are. Both are also-rans in their respective leagues and neither is really equipped to meet the aims of ambitious players.

It’s theory, of course, but Wenger could certainly have found an easier player to work with and one who posed less risk to the newly-improved mood.

Of course talent holds the greatest weight, as it always does. There lies the counter-argument: Aubameyang’s scoring record – even during a fractious 2017/18 – is excellent. It’s rational to troubled by his age, though, and to wonder whether a 28 year-old forward who is largely reliant on athleticism – and who is approaching 400 senior appearances – is really such a sound investment. It’s particularly telling – and concerning – that no other major club attempted to challenge Arsenal for the player and that, less than a year after piquing Real Madrid’s interest, he has been free to join a Europa League side who are currently six points off fifth place.

That prompts all sorts of questions, not least: what was it which dissuaded other sporting directors from pursuing him?

The deal to send Olivier Giroud to Chelsea adds an extra layer of concern. Giroud was never a forward likely to win a team anything significant, but he was – and remains – one of the very best secondary striking options in the Premier League, providing both a reasonable goal tally and a natural variation on their play. Arsenal have now lost that and, seemingly, have lost it to enable their pursuit of Aubameyang.

Beyond the blinding lights of the spectacle, this really does seem like a leap of faith: one long-serving player has been sold, another (Lacazette) will have to be marginalised, and this for the sake of a forward in his late twenties who is dependent on some highly perishable attributes. It’s an exciting addition and one which was always going to be hard to resist, but it comes with significant risk.

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