Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang back in top form at Barca

Xavi Hernandez’s Barcelona are taking off. And so is Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, quite literally. 

The Gabon striker has been able to pull off his trademark somersault celebration multiple times already after hitting the ground running at Camp Nou.

A hat-trick at Mestalla against Valencia, followed by strikes at Napoli and then against Athletic Bilbao have helped him quickly establish himself as a key player in his first month in Catalunya. 

When Aubameyang arrived, some doubted if he still had the desire and ability to make a difference at Barcelona after a rocky end to his time at Arsenal. 

Others wondered if he would fit into Xavi’s plans tactically – including the coach himself.

“Aubameyang can kill you in open space, but Barcelona need players who know how to move in small spaces,” Xavi himself had warned in 2020 when the club were linked with a move for Aubameyang.

Given Barcelona’s desperate need for a striker, Xavi had to look at the issue more pragmatically in January and it has paid dividends.

Having been left out of Arsenal’s plans in December, as well as being stripped of the captaincy by Mikel Arteta, and missing the Africa Cup of Nations after testing positive for Covid-19, there were also doubts about his fitness levels.

Aubameyang had also failed to score in his last six Premier League games before leaving the Emirates, with some fans partially blaming his lack of form for Arsenal’s struggles. 

Going further back, his 2020-21 campaign saw him hit 15 goals in 39 appearances, down from 29 and 31 goals in the two previous years.

So, Arsenal, who parted company with the 32-year-old by mutual consent on deadline day, allowing him to sign a new deal with Barcelona, might suddenly feel short-changed after his whirlwind February.

However, the Gunners didn’t exactly offer him a consistent project befitting his status as one of the world’s most lethal finishers, and his 91 goals in 163 games could even be seen as over-performing. 

He was used on the left-hand side by Arteta, rather than down the middle, which also impacted his goal rate.

While well-known issues with lateness reflect poorly on his professionalism, it’s also reasonable for Aubameyang to have felt frustrated and blocked at the Emirates. 

He won just one trophy there, the FA Cup in 2020, netting a brace against Chelsea in the final, a 2-1 win. Aubameyang also scored both goals in the 2-0 semi-final victory against Manchester City.

The forward had not played in the Champions League since leaving Borussia Dortmund, despite statistically keeping company with the world’s top goalscorers. 

Aubameyang also contracted malaria in March 2021 which left him bed-ridden in hospital and he lost four kilograms, which also had a big impact on his form, while his mother falling seriously ill saw him given compassionate leave.

His mother, Margarita Crespo Aubameyang, is also part of the reason he has been able to slot so smoothly in at Barcelona. 

She is Spanish and because of his close relationship with his grandparents on her side, the striker can comfortably speak the language, allowing him to fit in instantly.

Ousmane Dembele’s presence also helps, with the pair good friends from their time at Borussia Dortmund – and it could also benefit the French winger, who might be convinced to stay beyond the summer.

There is no question that Aubameyang is motivated at Barcelona. 

He made the effort to fly out on deadline day before a deal was agreed to leave Arsenal, showing his willingness to move to Spain. 

His contract is also on significantly lower terms than his wage in London because of Barcelona’s financial situation.

Aubameyang signed on at Barcelona until 2025, but there is an option to break the deal in June 2023, which should keep the striker focused and playing for his future next season.

Xavi’s prior concerns have not come to fruition, in part because Barcelona are in a transitional phase where they are not as strong as they used to be. 

They aren’t dominating matches as they did in the Pep Guardiola heyday, so there is more back and forth, leaving space for Aubameyang to maraud into.

That was most evident against Napoli at the San Paulo in a 4-2 win, with the opening goal coming from a lightning-fast counter, involving Aubameyang, fellow winter window arrival Adama Traore and Jordi Alba, who finished the move.

Aubameyang has also improved Barcelona’s high pressing – something Xavi has been focused on since arriving, while he has also quickly established a good relationship on the pitch with Ferran Torres.

His treble at Valencia displayed his goalscoring range, with the first coming after a long pass from Jordi Alba that he burst onto, and the second saw him carve out space in the box, staying onside by millimetres to tap the ball home from Gavi’s cross.

The third involved some fortune, with Pedri’s long-range rocket deflecting off him and into the net, but when your luck’s in, your luck’s in. 

Barcelona might think theirs is too, because even the most optimistic visions for Aubameyang’s start have been surpassed.

The striker hasn’t needed much time to recover his fitness and his poaching edge is still intact. 

His strike against Athletic, a volley, was a quick and clever reaction, proving Barcelona have a true ‘killer’ again, something they have lacked following Luis Suarez’s departure.

Aubameyang’s arrival came just at the right time for the Catalans, who needed a reliable goalscorer to ensure they reach next season’s Champions League and compete for the Europa League. 

He is already their third top scorer in La Liga this season with four, one behind Luuk de Jong and five off Memphis Depay, who has three penalties bolstering his tally of nine.

It is unrealistic to expect Aubameyang to maintain his current rate of scoring, a goal every 76.6 minutes, but he should play a crucial part in the months ahead. 

It’s harder to predict if he can lead the line next season for Barcelona if they fail in their attempts to sign Erling Haaland. 

He will turn 33 in June and is at risk of losing some of his pace over the summer break, although his acrobatics indicate he has plenty of energy left to give.

Source: Goal.com


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