The Gabon superstar has endured an underwhelming campaign so far but Marcelo Bielsa’s approach gives him an opportunity to thrive
While Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s 2020/21 season to date has been largely disappointing, the last fortnight was a real low for the Arsenal captain.
The Gabon star not only endured a 3-0 defeat at the Emirates Stadium as the Gunners lost to Aston Villa before the international break, but the last week with the Panthers saw his season go from bad to worse.
The players from the Central African nation were due to play the Gambia on Monday, only to be delayed for several hours at the airport, prompting their top goalscorer to criticise the Confederation of African Football.
They fell to a defeat, thus losing top spot in their Africa Cup of Nations qualifying group, and face a tricky last couple of games to make the showpiece in Cameroon.
Back in North London for a challenging run of fixtures over the Christmas schedule, the gloom that’s surrounded the skipper’s season has lingered. However, this weekend’s visit to Leeds United could be favourable for the club’s top scorer in the last two seasons.
Frankly, statistics for Auba have so far made for sombre reading. The 31-year-old’s Expected Goals of 1.7 places him 35th in the Premier League after eight games and 47th when penalties are excluded. He’s averaging fewer touches in the opposition box and hasn’t scored an open play league goal since the opening day success at Fulham.
Furthermore, the striker’s heatmap shows a major restriction to the left flank this term, a departure from previous seasons where he looked to move into central areas. This has reflected in a decline in shots per game which reads 1.1 - albeit after eight matches.
Last term, Aubameyang attempted 1.9 shots per match while he played 2 in his first full season at the club and 1.8 in 17/18 having joined in the winter window of Arsene Wenger’s final campaign.
These goalscoring challenges have prompted calls for Mikel Arteta to play the frontman down the middle, although this potential tweak would cause a major shift to how the Spaniard sets up his side.
There are also doubts about the one-time Golden Boot winner’s ability or lack of to play with his back to goal, while the grunt work required by Arteta in that position is unsuited to the forward’s strengths.
Be that as it may, it should be noted that there’s been a slight improvement in Aubameyang’s involvement in the side’s build-up thus far. Arsenal’s captain has been involved in 20 shot-creating actions, the highest volume in the side, although he does drop to third for SCAs per 90 behind Dani Ceballos and Willian.
Interestingly, the former Borussia Dortmund striker is also playing more key passes per game — 1.4 — than he managed in his two and a bit seasons in England — 0.7, 0.9 and 1.1 in 19/20, 18/19 and 17/18, respectively.
However, Gooners want their primary frontman on the receiving end of opportunities, not moonlighting as the team’s source of creativity, as he’s fashioned out more shooting opportunities per game than any teammate while no teammate outdoes him for big chances created (two).
So, why then could Sunday evening’s encounter with Leeds prove to be one for Auba to fancy regardless of the unease with Arsenal’s general approach in the final third?
For one, Bielsa’s high-risk football theoretically gives opponents a chance if they’re able to play beyond the unrelenting press of the Whites.
In the main, the Gunners fare reasonably well against pressing sides when playing out from the back. While Leeds’ relentless harrying would normally pose problems, the North Londoners have shown under Arteta to be adept at playing through the press and fashioning a presentable chance in the opponent’s box within seconds of beating the press.
This quality under the former Manchester City assistant manager has led to noteworthy goals in the FA Cup semi-final against the Cityzens, vs Liverpool in the Community Shield and away at Fulham in gameweek one, with Aubameyang twice a beneficiary of the London side’s new-found trademark.
The statistics also show that, before gameweek nine, Bielsa’s men had conceded the joint-highest goals in the top flight along with West Bromwich Albion (17) and no side in the division have outdone them for goals allowed per 90 (2.12).
In addition, the relatively average shot-stopping of Illan Meslier — his save percentage of 59.4 percent places him in the bottom five among goalkeepers this season — means opponents probably feel they don’t have to play brilliantly to beat the man between the sticks.
Two clean sheets all season further highlight how Leeds’ high-risk game is being picked apart by opponents. Even though Arsenal have failed to score an open-play goal since October 4 against Sheffield United, the mere fact another struggling attacking side in Crystal Palace were able to put four past Meslier would offer some encouragement to the three-time EPL champions.
Admittedly, placing the right context on the goals show that one came from an incredible Eberechi Eze free-kick and another from a wicked deflection that resulted in Helder Costa’s own goal. Throw in the disallowed Patrick Bamford goal that would have made it 1-1 and maybe Bielsa could claim his side were unlucky at Selhurst Park.
Still, the fact two of Leeds’ biggest defeats this season (4-1 against Leicester City and Palace) both came in games where the opponent looked to exploit their right flank, bodes well for Arteta’s men.
Given that Arsenal often look to create overloads down that very wing, Auba could also profit from the apparent weakness in the home side’s set up at Elland Road.
In truth, the Gunners have struggled to create promising openings consistently in the final third this season. Yet, a visit to West Yorkshire offers Aubameyang and co. a one-off game that could potentially play into the hands of the struggling visitors looking to bounce back from their Aston Villa humiliation before the break.