The Arsenal striker has a claim to be the most thrillingly old-fashioned centre-forward in the Premier League
OK, but apart from that. Apart from scoring more goals in the last three and a half seasons than anyone else we have seen in England. Apart from being the Premier League top scorer in a new-build team still trying to work out their rhythm and shape. And apart from doing all this with a thrillingly controlled range of movement, that easy grace that scarcely leaves a dent in the dew. Apart from all that. What has Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang actually done to commend himself as the deadliest, most thrillingly old-school centre-forward in the Premier League?
It is normal to have reservations about Aubameyang. People often do. As Arsenal have begun to stutter a little, with Saturday’s trip to Anfield looking like a chance to measure the distance this team still has left to run, there will be a temptation to question everything.
Perhaps Aubameyang could have put away an even greater percentage of his chances. Perhaps he could mask the clanks and clunks of the new era a little more effectively, pulling out that fun, goofy grin more often, the look of a man who celebrates every single goal he scores as though this is the greatest, most unexpected thing that has ever happened to him, as though he simply had no idea such things were even possible.
Either way Aubameyang is likely to enter the new year as the league’s top scorer. And as ever there is a vague sense of surprise about this. It isn’t hard to see why he confuses people. Football is a crowded, structurally baroque thing, a mess of noise and duelling metrics, tangled headphone chords, yellowing cheese board remnants, triple-screening evenings on the sofa arguing about expected goals with a parody Jeremy Corbyn Twitter account.
It is a minimalism that can be both devastating and amusingly peripheral. Against Chelsea in August Aubameyang played for 90 minutes and touched the ball 18 times. Three months later in the win against Spurs he produced the most ruthlessly destructive individual performance of the season, with 44 touches, two goals, an assist, five tackles, nothing wasted, nothing thrown away.
He even won two headers, this from a man who still grins manically when he successfully heads the ball, and who is even now – whisper it – on a run of three whole games without committing a foul, being flagged offside or making a tackle.
This is nothing new. There is some YouTube footage out there of Aubameyang’s first goal against an English team in the colours of Milan at the one-off World Youth Championships in Malaysia in 2007. Even this is pure one-touch killer, a run off the back of the Arsenal defence and a dreamy one-touch no-look instep volley yawned over the keeper with a flex of the big toe, not breaking stride, just running off to laugh about how good he is.
Milan still didn’t sign him. To date the only teams to have spent any money on this wonderfully smooth goalscoring machine are St Étienne, Arsenal and Borussia Dortmund, who got rid of him in part because their own measures suggested he was doing less, moving less, carrying out the team plan to a less exacting degree.
This is a part of the Aubameyang paradox. He is both a modern footballing athlete and a throwback to pre-Premier League times. In the age of 4-4-2 there were two main types of centre forward. First the classical Big Man, present now most obviously in the shape of Andy Carroll, who in his better moments can still replicate the destructive effects of hurling an aggressively confused wild yak from a second floor balcony into a Christmas market shopping street. And secondly the fast, smooth, Lineker/Aubameyang type, who made good runs and finished well and played right at the front of the team.
A cutting edge this sharp is still supremely effective. Aubameyang has nine Premier League away goals in 2018. His goals in tight games have been responsible for 12 league points so far this season. Plenty of Arsenal fans prefer the more aggressively involved Alexandre Lacazette. Others have twigged that Mesut Özil, divine imperial princeling of the late Wenger years, cannot really play in the same team. One minimalist is fine. Two looks like decadence.
Plus, the game has not changed that much. Perhaps the main thing that has gone wrong with Manchester City in the last month is just that their own killer up front has been injured or out of form. For all the talk of opponents wising up to the high press, of the loss of Fernandinho’s rapid transitions, these narratives are often engineered out of some fairly arbitrary details, games won or lost by fine margins. Stick Aubameyang in that City team for the last four games and they would probably end up winning all of them, albeit in a way that reflects little additional glory on the evolution of third-season Pep-ball.
That slightly aloof style does not really fit any obvious philosophy or pattern of play. But it is still foolish to overlook the most obvious route to goal, or the power of the minimalist, who might not be the best or the most complete, but who has a particular kind of beauty in his cold clear lines.