Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang continues to thrive in the Premier League, despite Arsenal‘s displays – and football’s inherent logic – suggesting that ought not to be the case.
Aubameyang turned 30 over the summer, around the point at which, traditionally at least, pacy strikers are supposed to begin their decline. Furthermore, he’s playing in something of an unconvincing (results aside) Arsenal side, with his strike partner Alexandre Lacazette missing since the first week of September.
And yet, like the similarly rapid Jamie Vardy, Aubameyang has shown no signs of slowing down, scoring seven Premier League goals at a rate of one every 103 minutes. So, how has he done it?
In theory, opposing defenders ought to be well aware of Aubameyang’s game by now. He’ll play off the shoulder of the last defender, shuffle into their blind spot and pounce.
You’d think this would be… well, not easy to defend against, but at least moderately manageable. Of course, if that was really the case, someone would have found a way to stop him by now.
The problem is doubled when you consider the speed with which he gets his shot away. Goals like his opener against Watford are the equivalent of pulling off a heist and getting away before anyone notices the building has been entered.
It’s hard to think of a more thankless task than the one facing a defender going one-on-one against Aubameyang. The mental power required to keep your eyes on him at all times is beyond most humans and saps away a good proportion of the energy needed to physically keep up with him.
When you’re already at a physical disadvantage, losing that extra few per cent is bound to kill you, and that’s before we get onto the mental strain of being ground to dust time after time even when the striker doesn’t put away his chances.
Taking him on is like taking an exam in a language you don’t understand: you begin by having no clue how to approach the situation, and by the time you’ve worked out the smallest bit of context it has sapped all your reserves and left you chasing your tail.
You can surely sympathise with the defenders who, rather than losing their minds trying to achieve the impossible, opt to lay an offside trap. If you’ve already been physically and mentally broken then this is no longer a super high-risk ploy compared to the alternative.
The problem comes from the fact that Aubameyang tends to have the foresight to anticipate you falling to pieces in this exact way.
Admittedly, Newcastle shouldn’t have been resorting to this less than an hour into the opening match of the season, but this isn’t their first rodeo.
Lacazette and Aubameyang felt like a buddy cop duo at times last season, and this might be enough to think the pair would always be stronger than the sum of their parts.
If this logic were true, though, the Frenchman’s absence since the north London Derby on September 1 should have been enough to stop his strike partner in his tracks.
With Aubameyang occupying a central position, flanked by proper wingers Bukayo Saka and Nicolas Pépé in recent weeks, you’d expect him to be the subject of far greater attention, not to mention unable to drift wide with the same regularity.
However, as we have discussed, not only does he not care what you think, he actively wants to shoot down the idea that you even have control over your thoughts.
Against Manchester United, for example, he managed to sneak through on the blind side of the United defence to find himself clean through on goal. By this stage there really shouldn’t even have been a blind side to sneak through on, but he only needs the opposition to let their guard down for a split second.
The goal against United was Aubameyang’s eighth in all competitions this season and his 49th in 75 games for Arsenal.
The two-in-three ratio of his five Borussia Dortmund seasons came in his peak years, or so we thought, so maybe we were wrong about the moment at which a striker peaks.
When a player passes 30, an oft-used cliché is that the first yard is in his head. When he’s already got an extra yard in his legs to accompany it, what chance does anyone have?
By Tom Victor