Is Auba under-performing?

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Last weekend’s 4-0 defeat at Anfield had plenty of familiar themes, even if this is a relatively new-look Arsenal outfit. One area of the team that is very much not “new-look”, as I wrote a fortnight ago, is the attack. Lacazette, Aubameyang and Pepe were all inherited by Mikel Arteta and there is a lingering sense that it wouldn’t have been the attack he would’ve chosen himself.

Once again, it proved too easy for a formidable opponent to detach Lacazette and Aubameyang from the rest of the team and turn them into a forlorn island, suffering from drought and dysentery. That Arteta has begun to partner them is, in itself, an admission that neither of them totally gives him what he would like from a solitary striker.

Aubameyang generally gets the nod over Lacazette because he has superior goal threat and goals >>> linking play. Last season, the captain endured his most impoverished season in an Arsenal shirt, managing only eight goals from open play. There were some factors outside of his control responsible for this, which are well litigated by now; but it still led to justified anxiety over his output at this stage of his career.

Auba looks to be more full of pish and vinegar this season, putting up physical numbers unrivalled by his Premier League striking contemporaries. However, this is still an Arsenal team that struggles to create scoring opportunities on a regular basis. They remain on a -4 goal difference, after all.

We know Auba the player well, he is a penalty box striker whose movement inside the area sets him apart. Arsenal don’t get the ball into the area very easily or very regularly, but how much is Auba a contributor to the team’s inconsistent attack and how much is he a victim? Indeed, has his level of performance really diminished as much as many believe? Let’s look at the numbers.

This season so far, the Gabonese has four goals in 878 minutes across 11 appearances. That’s a goal roughly every 219.5 minutes, he has an XG of 4.4 in that time but a lot of that is made up by a pair of penalty misses, his non-penalty XG is 2.8 in just under 10 full matches, minutes wise. It’s not great, especially as all of his minutes have been at centre-forward this season.

SeasonGoalsXG (Expected Goals)Goals per 90Non-penalty goals per 90XG per 90 2017-189100.850.770.77 2018-192220.10.730.590.67 2019-202215.80.630.570.45 2020-211010.60,390.310.41 2021-2244.40.410.410.45

The first conclusion from the table above is that it’s probably better to be an attacker under Arsene Wenger than it is under Unai Emery and probably better to be an attacker under Unai Emery than it is Mikel Arteta. Arteta made defensive solidity a central tenant of his Arsenal home improvement project, at the expense of the attack at times.

We can see the numbers are creeping, albeit slowly, back in the right direction this season though the sample size remains small. What we have seen is a drop off in Auba’s XG per 90, which is a very good indicator of a striker’s “health” as it were, since the end of the 2018-19 season. What is also notable is that Aubameyang usually runs pretty close to his XG in terms of conversion rate.

The outlier is that 2019-20 campaign, when he scored 22 goals from an XG of 15.8. His XG per 90 since that season has run at a fairly consistent level, between 0.41 and 0.45 but, for whatever reason, he ran very hot in 2019-20 and that, coupled with virtually winning Arsenal the FA Cup single-handedly persuaded Arsenal to hand him a new three-year contract in 2020. Let’s break it down further and look at how his shooting has fared in the same timeframe.

SeasonShots per 90Shots on target per 90Percentage of shots on target per 90 2017-182.391.3757.1% 2018-192.941.1238.2% 2019-202.591.1544.4% 2020-212.160.7333.9% 2021-222.451.1245.8%

We can see his shooting numbers are relatively consistent- with the exception of last season, when his shots became slightly more wayward, he was only shooting slightly less last season compared to his others at the club. What we can glean from this data is that, if the XG shows us that 2019-20 was very good for Aubameyang, the shots show us that last season was especially bad. The context from last season is that he was healthy when Arsenal were playing without any kind of number 10 and once Smith Rowe and Odegaard came in, he was not healthy. This season, he is showing progression on those numbers this year.

SeasonPressures per 90 2017-1811.7 2018-1917.6 2019-2016.5 2020-2113.3 2021-2217.3

The first thing to observe is that Auba was asked to do far less off the ball work for his half season under Arsene Wenger but we can see fairly solid physical numbers there. In terms of closing opponents down off the ball (I don’t have high intensity sprint data) his numbers only really dropped last season when he was experiencing the effects of malaria and- it has to be said- he cut a forlorn figure as Arsenal badly struggled to create prior to the introduction of Emile Smith Rowe and Martin Odegaard (he bagged a hat-trick the first time both players played behind him at home to Leeds).

This season, his physical numbers in terms of pressures have gone right back up again, which doesn’t suggest much of a slowdown on his part. He has started every game in the Premier League since the end of August and the eye test also tells you that his effort can’t be faulted. He certainly looks more engaged and fitter than he did last season, when malaria certainly trimmed a few pounds from his frame. Let’s look at how Arsenal’s overall creative numbers look during Aubameyang’s tenure.

SeasonShot creating actions per 90Passes that led to a shot per 90Passes into the final third per 90Passes into the penalty area per 90 2017-1824.711.442.913.3 2018-1920.29.532.711.3 2019-2016.67.529.58.4 2020-2119.08.534.79.0 2021-2221.69.924.58.3

Once again, I will repeat my assertion that you would rather be an attacker under Arsene Wenger than under Emery or Arteta. We can see a tailing off on the creative numbers under Emery, then a big drop in Arteta’s first season, followed by small, gradual recoveries. On this basis, I think it’s fair for Aubameyang to point to a lack of regular service, especially as there is little evidence of actual physical decline.

What has rather skewed the data and perhaps delayed this impression is that Aubameyang outperformed all of his metrics in Arteta’s first season. The evidence of a lack of supply was already there but Auba was simply better at turning porridge into caviar, which was unlikely to be sustainable. On the flipside, that purple patch probably caught up with him last season.

The fact that a lot of Auba’s data shows improvement this season suggests, to me, that the player is not yet in a serious decline. The level of service is improving this year but only slightly. It remains to be seen whether that overall team creative data continues to improve. If Arsenal’s creative output improves and the captain’s end product doesn’t, we can probably assume that father time is calling for last orders at the bar. That said, the impression remains, to me at least, that Auba isn’t the type of striker that Arteta really wants for his remoulded Arsenal outfit and that is the biggest factor in play.

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All data in this article taken from FBRef

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