Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang: The penalty box king who is changing Arsenal

LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 08: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang of Arsenal celebrates scoring the first goal during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Southampton at Emirates Stadium on April 8, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 08: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang of Arsenal celebrates scoring the first goal during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Southampton at Emirates Stadium on April 8, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images) /

How penalty box king Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is already changing Arsenal.

It hasn’t taken long for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to justify the club-record £56 million Arsenal paid to sign him in the January transfer window. In fact, the forward is already making the exorbitant fee look like a bargain.

He’s only made eight starts (seven in the Premier League) since joining the Gunners from Borussia Dortmund. But the small sample size is all Aubameyang has needed to set one club record and change the dynamic of this Arsenal team going forward.

Aubameyang’s record came when he netted the north Londoners’ first goal in Sunday’s wild 3-2 home win over Southampton. It marked an historic start to league action for an Arsenal frontman, with James Benge of the London Evening Standard listing who Auba had surpassed:

The reference to Davor Suker is key. He was signed to be the poacher of the penalty box in 1999.

Manager Arsene Wenger wanted a different kind of threat to replace the direct pace of Nicolas Anelka, who had bolted to Real Madrid.

He chose Suker because the wily Croatian marksman had established himself as a deadly number 9 during spells with Sevilla and Real. A veteran of 31 at the time, Suker was still counted on to make the decisive choices in the area to finish the intricate passing moves of Patrick Vieira, Emmanuel Petit, Dennis Bergkamp and Nwankwo Kanu.

Suker was supposed to be the plan B to the coltish pace of a young Thierry Henry, also signed the same summer. Yet it never quite worked out, with Suker scoring 11 goals before moving on with barely a whisper to join West Ham United one season later.

Wenger’s search for a penalty box king continued, though, with Francis Jeffers swiped from Everton in 2001. Again, the experiment failed to bear fruit, as a combination of injuries and playing in a team now exclusively geared to releasing the pace of Henry and Sylvain Wiltord didn’t need Jeffers’ mastery of the area.

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It wasn’t until Robin van Persie finally stayed in one piece long enough to play a full season Wenger got the close-range expert he’d coveted. Van Persie scored 37 goals during the 2011-12 campaign, many of them from inside the box.

Since his departure to United in 2012, Arsenal have struggled to recreate the same level of efficiency from close in. Olivier Giroud had the knack occasionally, but wasn’t ever quick or sharp enough to make the most of the sheer number of chances created for him.

In Aubameyang, the Gunners finally have the penalty box king who will ensure their elaborate build-up is rewarded more often.

Aubameyang arrived at the Emirates Stadium with a proven track record of doing his best work closer to goal. It’s a misnomer about the 28-year-old he’s a defense-stretching striker whose game is defined by pace.

The numbers from his prolific spell in the Bundesliga show otherwise, per OptaJoe:

Coming alive in the most important area on the pitch is a transferrable skill, as Aubameyang has proved since pulling on an Arsenal jersey.

His latest goal was an excellent example. It began with the striker coming short, a deft move considering he’s often expected to spin in behind and use his pace.

Aubameyang dropped off the front against the Saints to feed Iwobi, whose brilliant reverse pass found Danny Welbeck. The latter played a delightful, first-time flick for, you guessed it, Aubameyang to prod in.

Arsenal’s main man had reacted quickest after feeding Iwobi. The timing of his movement was impeccable, but his instincts for how play would develop truly stood out.

Aubameyang has an innate feeling for how moves will unfold and where the ball will end up. It’s how he’s scored so many goals from inside the danger zone he’s made his own private kingdom.

The significance of Aubameyang’s goal against Southampton shouldn’t be overlooked. It showed how vital a penalty box king is to a Wenger team.

Wengerball, the distinctive brand of slick one- and two-touch passing between mini triangles of players, the manager has preached for over two decades can be beautiful to watch.

Equally though, Wenger’s vision of the game at the highest level can also be frustrating when one pass too many brings a stylish move to a mundane halt. Cries of “SHOOT!” are often heard from home supporters desperate to see the relentless possession actually produce results.

Those results will no longer be as hard to come by now Aubameyang is firing. He will give the man on the ball an obvious option in the box.

In fact, much like Welbeck did against the Saints, the player tasked with making the last pass doesn’t need to even look for Aubameyang. They can simply trust the man in the No. 14 shirt will be where he needs to be finish another move the right way.

There’s an irony to Aubamyang taking the No. 14 shirt Henry wore en route to becoming Arsenal’s all-time leading goalscorer. Henry’s path to goal was usually the fastest straight(ish) line between two points.

His pace and timing made Arsenal a turbo-juiced machine with a quick-strike capability even more deadly than the Anelka-Marc Overmars combination in 1998.

Henry’s peak came later, during the halcyon days from 2001-06, when Wenger’s Gunners won two titles, three FA Cups and reached the Champions league final.

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Remembering the other strikers of this time shows how pace was the order of the day. Wiltord, Jose Antonio Reyes and even Jeremie Aliadiere could leave any defenders trailing once they turned on the afterburners.

Wenger has attempted to replicate the formula in recent seasons. He tried both Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott through the middle, before the pacy attackers found new clubs in January.

Jet-heeled frontmen like Henry and Sanchez helped Arsenal circumnavigate the route to goal in two to four passes at most. Today’s vintage is different, with more intricate and lengthy combinations of passes among Mesut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere the most common preamble before a goal.

It’s a mode of travel Aubameyang is perfect for, no matter where Wenger plays him. The manager recently told Sky Sports (h/t Adam Bate) his record buy could move out wide:

"He is a good, interesting option because he likes to play on the left as well so we can play Lacazette and him or Welbeck and him."

A partnership with Laczette offers fascinating possibilities. The latter was Arsenal’s record signing before Auba arrived, prompting doubts about his future.

Yet former Lyon man Lacazette has shown an underrated capacity to play with his back to goal and find free players with flicks and deft skills.

Those touches would be ideal for Aubameyang, whose suddenness, instincts and anticipation will redefine Arsenal’s build-up play, offering the icing on the cake Wenger has missed for too long.