There have been times when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has been reminiscent of Thierry Henry, gliding past defenders with the sort of slick, effortless acceleration that made him seem the footballing equivalent of a sports car, finishing with classy displays of superiority.
Now the figure from Arsenal’s past he resembles most is Mesut Ozil. Not in terms of serving as the creator in chief, either, conjuring gorgeous assists. If the German had the worst contract in the Premier League a year ago, now perhaps Aubameyang does.
Stripped of the captaincy, omitted from the Arsenal team for the last two games, the £300,000-a-week man may not return at Leeds on Saturday. Mikel Arteta has declined to answer questions if he will be selected and about his future. With the African Cup of Nations in January, Aubameyang’s exile could last two months.
Perhaps it will be permanent. But after Arteta played hardball, it means potential suitors are likelier to lowball Arsenal with any offers for an outcast. They can write off his £56 million fee. They may have to subsidise his wages for him to play for anyone else. The worst-case scenario is the Ozil precedent, of a marquee signing first paid not to play and then paid off. It could be another expensive embarrassment.
The paradox is that as Arsenal’s position has never been better this season in another respect. By beating West Ham, they leapfrogged them. Bottom at the end of August, Arsenal are now fourth. Stay there and Arteta has achieved his primary aim for the campaign.
Arsenal v West Ham ratings
Yet a sense of vindication comes with some Arsenal-esque peculiarities. Aubameyang’s immediate replacement as striker and interim captain is Alexandre Lacazette, another ageing striker who cost Arsenal a large sum they will have to write off. As the Frenchman’s contract expires in the summer, he scarcely appears a figurehead for a new era. He was marginalised at the start of the season. Now he is playing well but a penalty miss against West Ham means he has only two goals in 12 league games.
Instead, Arsenal are prospering by reducing the reliance on their major strikers. In 2019-20, they scored 56 league goals; Aubameyang and Lacazette got 32 of them. Now there is more of a collective commitment with the scoring duties shared. A criticism of some of Arteta’s attacking midfielders and wingers is that they did not get enough goals. Now that is being rectified.
Martin Odegaard scored two goals in his first 25 Premier League games. He has three in four now, including a predator’s close-range header against Southampton. Emile Smith Rowe’s late strike against West Ham was his fifth in seven top-flight outings, after just three in the previous 30. Gabriel Martinelli has two in five. Bukayo Saka has assists in the last two matches. Odegaard is 22, Smith Rowe 21, Martinelli and Saka both 20.
But there is the exception to the rule. Nicolas Pepe is, at 26, the one Arsenal attacker who should be in his peak years. Instead, he has played seven minutes since October. A return to Elland Road is a reminder of his red card last season for stupidly headbutting Ezgjan Alioski.
Pepe cost £72 million, a figure that looked inflated long before a credit crunch in the wider European game deflated fees for a lot of players. As Aubameyang can testify, Arteta prizes control and is unafraid to penalise those who show a lack of discipline. The emphasis in the Arsenal team has shifted from the bigger buys towards his younger proteges. But while Aubameyang’s scoring returns have diminished, it remains a test if Lacazette and the newly prolific midfielders can get the goals to keep Arsenal in the top four.