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Arsenal facing familiar dilemma over Aubameyang form

For Arsenal, internal and external criticism never seems too far away. When they started this season in typically meek, flimsy style, going down 2-0 to a Brentford side fresh from promotion, the knives were out for Mikel Arteta.

After a summer in which £135m was spent on a long-term plan in his image, such a poor showing where, on the surface, nothing had changed, meant Arteta was the target for fan and media ire. The bigger picture, particularly since April’s attempt to be part of the breakaway European Super League, is that the ownership is the problem. However, after drifting into midtable mediocrity at his hand, Arteta was held responsible too. There were some who believed he didn’t deserve the chance of a rebuild and, the moment things went wrong, the discontent restarted louder than ever.

The biggest issue with such a comprehensive loss was that Chelsea and Manchester City followed immediately. Successive defeats were expected, even from the most ardent of Gooners, but seven goals conceded without reply meant that the tornado of noise swirled faster. Once again, the club teetered on the brink of crisis.

It was hardly the right environment for Ben White, Albert Sambi-Lokonga and Aaron Ramsdale to thrive, young signings it was hoped would build a nucleus for the coming years alongside the likes of Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith-Rowe. But when form began to turn, Arteta won manager of the month and Arsenal propelled themselves into the top four conversation — concrete early signs that the plan was working — his critics laid dormant again. Two defeats to Manchester United and Everton later, the cycle returned to the start.

Perhaps there is a harsh perception of Arsenal fans due to the way a minority behave online but the club environment is hardly conducive to success. Whether it’s under Arteta or not, they need somebody to build a sustainable future with coherent planning.

He’s far from perfect and perhaps came into the job a little overrated, given a spell alongside Pep Guardiola at Manchester City was the extent of his coaching CV, but he has streamlined the club and given it a purpose again. There is an identity and an approach which are clear to see.

Youth isn’t the issue at Arsenal. Their squad is bursting with quality, young players who will only improve, led by Saka and Smith Rowe in particular. But a wider issue that has plagued the club for years may just have reared its head again and they’ve been burnt on both sides when it comes to players running down their contracts.

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Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie both left to win Premier League titles with direct rivals at half the price they could have commanded a year earlier, as did Alexis Sanchez with a lesser degree of success. Mesut Özil was given a new, lucrative deal six months before Arsene Wenger departed in 2018 but struggled for form and trust under both Unai Emery and Arteta, a former teammate. By the time he left last year, he was a burden they couldn’t wait to see the back of.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is by no means at that stage yet but his career threatens to follow a similar trajectory. After months of speculation over a departure, he too signed a new contract on huge wages, and has not looked the same player since.

One of the biggest, and fairest, criticisms of Arteta’s Arsenal is that they are too reliant on their emerging talent. Smith Rowe was given a chance in the squad for the Boxing Day win over Chelsea last year, precisely because more experienced players like Willian, who has since departed, Alexandre Lacazette and Aubameyang were struggling for form.

The youngsters haven’t looked back since but now they are dragging the team along to a certain extent. While that obviously is a positive, the flip side is that Aubameyang, the captain, is no longer leading from the front. Form is temporary, but after a while, if it doesn’t improve it can have a big effect on the perception of a player and their mentality.

There may be an element of myth around his situation but since committing his future to Arsenal, the 32-year-old has struggled to perform at his best, with a late arrival ahead of the North London Derby last season making matters worse. It is easy to compare him to Özil, no matter how unfair that may be in reality.

If Arsenal can get Aubameyang firing again, their chances of top four and a return to the Champions League will improve vastly. But there seems to be an issue there, and it has been seen before; the quality of Arteta’s squad will improve in the years to come, but their older stars need to step up now.

 


 

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