October 23, 2021

Was this Aubameyang’s best ever season?

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The Arsenal captain rescued what was threatening to be a disastrous year for the Gunners, thus cementing arguably his most momentous campaign to date

Going into Saturday’s FA Cup final between Arsenal and Chelsea, both sides coveted the trophy, but the need was surely greater for Mikel Arteta’s team given the consequences of success or otherwise.

It was pretty common knowledge that the Gunners needed the cup to present a path into Europe next season. After ending eighth in the Premier League, the North London side desperately had to win their 14th title in the sport’s oldest domestic competition to feature in the Europa League in 2020/21.

While the Gunners aspire for more than participation in the continent’s secondary club competition, circumstances during the season meant FA Cup triumph would represent success.

From a financial perspective, in a pandemic-hit universe, European involvement in whatever form at least brings in some money for the club. For potential signings, Saturday’s victory, the club’s first trophy since 2017, gives possible arrivals a reason to move to North London.

Perhaps importantly, Arsenal’s conquest helps to convince star players that staying at the Emirates Stadium is good in the short and long term.

None other falls into the latter category than captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the star of the final and semi-final vs Chelsea and Manchester City respectively. If there were doubts as to his prowess in the big games, the affable striker has dispelled that notion in the Gunners’ cup run, which culminated with two incredible performances at Wembley against two of the country’s finest clubs.

Both games were decided by the prolific frontman, whose standing among supporters of the club has grown exponentially in what was a very strange season in North London.

Unai Emery, the head coach tipped to take the club into a new era after the Arsene Wenger years, toiled remarkably in the last few months in the job, winning just two of his final 10 games before getting the sack at the end of November.

The performances of record signing Nicolas Pepe were inconsistent in his maiden campaign as he understandably struggled to get to grips with English football. Alexander Lacazette battled for form after an early-season ankle injury while playmaking genius Mesut Ozil was mostly out of the side in the first third of their season and crucially after the lockdown.

The most significant moment, however, came in October when then-captain Granit Xhaka sarcastically responded in kind as Gooners cheered his substitution in a 2-2 draw with cross-town rivals Crystal Palace. It seemed like Arsenal’s season would unravel after that astonishing moment at the Emirates.

Despite this, Auba still managed to score 22 Premier League goals in 36 appearances, matching his haul from 18/19. Only Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy prevented him from retaining the Golden Boot he claimed along with Liverpool pair Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane the previous year.

Understanding the nuances of both campaigns means this year’s tally is probably more appreciated. His return this season accounted for 39 percent of the team’s 56 goals, notably higher than last year which was 30 percent of the club’s 73 strikes. With the club in dire straits after Emery’s sacking and Freddie Ljungberg struggling in an interim capacity, it was the Gabon star who lifted the struggling side with his goals as many of the side’s heavy hitters toiled.

In January, when reports swirled about his future, the striker committed to the club till the end of the season, instantly stemming the negativity that was starting to build. Indeed, that moment sent a calming effect around the club and allowed Arteta room to focus on slowly influencing his group of players.

The greater efficiency of the Arsenal talisman this year deserves commendation, owing to how they struggled to fashion out chances.

Statistics show that the Gunners created 67 big chances in 19/20, putting them in the bottom half, and specifically 14th, for top creators. For even better understanding, relegated Watford (68) fashioned out more, as did West Ham United (68), Sheffield United (71), Southampton (74), Everton (76) and Burnley (78). Four of these sides ended in the bottom half of the Prem, emphasizing how harder it was to hit the same number as his first full campaign.

Under Emery last term, the three-time Premier League champions created 89 clear-cut chances, sixth-highest in the league, which further strengthens the argument that their top striker had a better campaign this year in an otherwise struggling side.

Furthermore, in a deviation from the norm, Aubameyang shed the perception that despite being a prolific goalscorer he also tended to miss really easy opportunities. Even though the 31-year-old has in the last few years regularly been one of the leading marksmen in the English top flight and previously the Bundesliga, he’s also tended to either top the charts for most clear-cut chances missed or be close to the top…not this year.

Surprisingly, Arsenal’s talisman failed to put away only 10 opportunities that fell into the ‘big chances’ column this season, which sits him 17th in the league. Last term he missed 23, higher than anyone else, and was second to Robert Lewandowski (21 to 19) in 17/18 even though he left Borussia Dortmund in mid-season.

It was the same in 15/16 and 16/17 where only the Bayern Munich forward failed to convert more. With fewer chances coming the Gabon striker’s way this term, he was even more effective in front of goal and very nearly retained the Golden Boot.

This new-found efficiency was notable in their FA Cup semi and on Saturday, where the club captain scored twice each from three and four shots respectively, underlining his recently discovered killer instinct in the big matches.

He’s not going to be a vocal, charismatic leader like Tony Adams was previously at the club or John Terry in Chelsea’s best years, but what the 2015 African Footballer of the Year guarantees is to lead by example by scoring goals regardless of the quality around him.

This is what the Gunners realised this season, as their captain carried the side for large parts of a torturous campaign while others flailed. This ultimately culminated in cup success, thus taking the desperate North Londoners into Europe next season.

If Aubameyang leaves now, Gooners should show no antipathy toward the Gabon star. If he stays, Arsenal will want no other captain leading them as they strive to retake their place among the nation’s biggest clubs under the hugely promising Arteta.