Arsenal skipper Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang admitted on Wednesday that this has arguably been his toughest season ever, and it’s clear to see why.
After signing a new £250,000-per-week contract near the start of the season, his renewal was seen as a statement of intent by Arsenal just moments after Mikel Arteta lifted his first trophy as manager of the club.
Aubameyang’s FA Cup heroics at the end of last season had lifted the gloom at the club but just months later, and they found themselves back to square one under their inexperienced manager.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has endured a frustrating season in front of goal for Arsenal
Aubameyang has netted just 13 times in all competitions since signing his new Arsenal deal
Arsenal with and without Aubameyang in all competitions this season (stats courtesy of sofascore.com)
And Aubameyang’s lack of goals up top has certainly hindered Arsenal and Arteta’s aspirations for this season.
The Gabon striker has scored just 15 goals in 35 appearances across all competitions this season, a far cry from his previous campaigns in England – with 13 of these coming after putting pen to paper on his new contract.
Aubameyang’s dry spell in front of goal has coincided with the Gunners languishing in ninth place in the Premier League and in massive danger of missing out on European football altogether for the first time since the 1995-96 campaign.
He also grabbed the headlines for the wrong reasons ahead of the North London derby against Tottenham at the Emirates in March.
Aubameyang turned up late when Arsenal’s squad met for the derby – he was punished immediately by Arteta, who made the bold call to drop his captain for Arsenal’s clash with their biggest rivals Tottenham.
In fact, and this would have come as a massive shock before the season kicked off, Arsenal’s win rate without Aubameyang this season (61 per cent) is far greater than with him in the line-up (40 per cent).
Arteta’s men also score more goals per game without Aubameyang in the team (2.1) than with him up top (1.3).
The captain was dropped to the bench vs Tottenham after turning up late when the squad met
‘I had some really bad seasons at the start of my career,’ Aubameyang said ahead of Arsenal’s crunch Europa League clash against Villarreal. ‘Definitely over the past few years it has been the most difficult.
‘I think this is life sometimes but you have to just keep focusing on working, I know it’s been a really tough year because I had some issues on and off the pitch but I’m feeling confident for the end of the season and in my mind I’m hungry and want to finish well for the club.’
While goals have dried up for Aubameyang this season, he has also had to deal with very troubling issues in his personal life.
Aubameyang was granted compassionate leave by Arsenal in January to care for his mother in France when she fell ill.
He then contracted the killer disease malaria while on international duty with Gabon, a massive set back as he looked to get his and Arsenal’s season back on track.
‘I was feeling very, very bad. This was the worst moment of being sick in my life. I had three days in a row, fever, all day and all night, non-stop.
‘Even the paracetamol and stuff had no effect. After that, I spoke to the doctor. I said I needed to go to the hospital because I was travelling to Africa so maybe it was something like malaria. I stayed in hospital for three days.
‘I was really, really down and I think I lost four kilos. It was a really bad moment and my family was a bit scared to see me like this.’
Aubameyang has also had his troubles off the pitch, and was recently hospitalised with malaria
Luckily for Arsenal, he has almost fully recovered physically and his starting berth in the Premier League clash against Newcastle last weekend, in which he scored in, came as a huge boost.
He is now ready to sink Villarreal in the Europa League, and simply put, Arteta needs him to deliver with Arsenal in real danger of falling further into obscurity.
Aubameyang knows the importance of Thursday night’s game. If Arsenal fail to overturn a 2-1 deficit against Villarreal and former manager Unai Emery, then a season without the financial security of European football awaits for his club.
Arsenal pride themselves on being European regulars and if they are not competing on the biggest stage, not only will their financial powers be weakened which will affect who they can sign, but their status as one of Europe’s elite teams will be brought further into question.
A mid-table finish and no cup glory would signify a disastrous season for the Gunners and it would appear a daunting road back to the top for a team who dominated English football with Manchester United in the late 90s and early 2000s.
The clash against Villarreal in north London could also define Arteta’s tenure as manager. Win and then overcome Manchester United (most likely) in the final, then the Spaniard has delivered what every Arsenal fan wants – Champions League football.
But defeat against Villarreal and he will be fighting a losing battle, with the club in line for their worst season in a long long time.
Mikel Arteta will be praying his captain delivers the goods against Villarreal on Thursday
Aubameyang’s goalscoring heroics guided Arsenal to another FA Cup triumph last season
So with plenty at stake for Arteta and Arsenal, he will be counting on his captain – who the club paid so much faith in by tying him down to his mega-money contract – to produce the goods at the Emirates.
And with Alexandre Lacazette in a very late fitness battle ahead of Thursday night having sustained a hamstring injury against Fulham last month, Aubameyang’s role at the Emirates is set to take on even more significance.
Aubameyang is likely to be leading the line if Lacazette definitely misses out, and he will be hoping to replicate his heroics that saw him rewarded with his new contract.
The 31-year-old, who fired Arsenal past Benfica at the round of 32 stage following his double in the 3-2 second leg victory in February, has previous when it comes to the Europa League.
With a place in the final two seasons ago up for grabs under Thursday’s opponent Emery, Aubameyang proved the difference in sunny Valencia.
The Gabonese striker produced an attacking masterclass, firing a hat-trick as Arsenal cruised to a 4-2 victory in Valencia to seal their spot in that season’s final against Chelsea in Baku. The less said about that, the better.
Aubameyang fired Arsenal to the Europa League final in 2019 with a hat-trick vs Valencia
And it was Aubameyang’s heroics in front of goal that guided the Gunners to FA Cup glory last season, scoring twice against both Manchester City and Chelsea at Wembley.
He has delivered for Arsenal when they’ve needed him most in the past, and despite being far from his best this season, Emery is still massively wary of the threat he will pose.
Asked on Wednesday if he feels Aubameyang remains on the list of Europe’s top strikers and how he plans to stop him, Emery replied: ‘Aubameyang is a killer. He was, he is and he will always be. He has been through a process of being out of the team because of the illness he has had but he is back.’
He added: ‘He was the top scorer in the Premier League when I was there, he is really good physically and is a killer, like I said.’
Aubameyang knows he has been a shadow of his former self this term, but he is still Arsenal’s go-to man when they need some inspiration.
And Emery will know all too well that his Villarreal side must keep him quiet if they are to stand any chance of sealing their spot in the Europa League final, and consigning Arsenal to further misery.