Chelsea must fear the No 9 curse strikes again.
When Chelsea signed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from Barcelona on deadline day last summer, he was brought in to replace a centre-forward who barely touched the ball, let alone scored, in Romelu Lukaku.
The Belgian forward, who is currently on loan at Inter Milan, has struggled to adapt to Chelsea’s style of play and expressed his displeasure during an unauthorized interview with Sky Sport Italia.
The incident overshadowed Chelsea’s first home game of 2022, a high-profile game against Liverpool. Lukaku was left out of the squad as punishment by then-coach Thomas Tuchel and while he issued a public apology, the damage was done.
Here we are 12 months later and it’s Aubameyang’s turn to be the talk of the town for all the wrong reasons following Chelsea’s opening home game of the calendar year.
Aubameyang did not express his displeasure to the media as Lukaku did, but his annoyance was evident when he suffered the humiliation of being replaced by coach Graham Potter 68 minutes after coming on as a substitute in the 1-0 defeat to Manchester City.
When Aubameyang’s number was withheld by the fourth official, the 33-year-old shook his head in disbelief more than once and barely acknowledged Potter as he walked past him to take his place in the dugout.
Aubameyang won’t be the last player to react to this scenario in this way. It is one of the most embarrassing things to happen to a footballer. But it revealed his frustration.
Potter did his best to play down the incident, saying: “Players want to stay on the pitch and influence the game. It’s a normal reaction.” However, what is indisputable is Aubameyang’s form, and lack of it, which is the main problem.
The former Arsenal captain has gone 10 appearances without a goal for Chelsea. He has found the net just three times for the club. That run returned in October against Crystal Palace and two games against AC Milan.
Worryingly, he doesn’t look like ending the drought. It wasn’t as if he was missing opportunity after opportunity. When he was on the pitch against City, he didn’t register a shot and had just one touch (out of 14 in total) in the opposition penalty area.
That is in line with his run of eight clean sheets in the Premier League. He had just five attempts on goal in total during the match with only two of those strikes hitting the target – one in the draw at Brentford and the other in the defeat at Brighton.
As Lukaku showed in a Chelsea shirt, the added problem with Aubameyang is that when he’s not scoring, it’s hard to see what else he’s contributing. The veteran player, who was released by Arsenal last January, was not involved enough in the game in general. This was highlighted when he touched the ball eight times during the 1-0 defeat to Arsenal in November. That was the last occasion Potter named him in the first XI.
In the five games since, Armando Broja, out for the season with a knee injury, has led the line twice and, even more obviously, Kai Havertz has been Potter’s go-to guy in the last three games.
Potter highlighted the important qualities Havertz brings to the role after he scored against Bournemouth last week. Those comments seem significant as far as Aubameyang’s situation is concerned. He said: “As a nine player, he (Havertz) gives you flexibility and variability in the game. He can go down but he can also threaten the backline and he can score goals. So I like him in that position.
“With the period we went through, we had to adjust some things. It’s nice to get that clarity (on the position), but sometimes it’s not possible. The players have different aspects in terms of their quality so they can play in several positions. And Kai is one of them.
“I have to make a decision (selection of the team) based on what I think every day in training and Kai scoring goals and playing for the German national team, and looking at his goalscoring record there, it’s elite level. Every time he plays there, he manages to score goals and he also contributes to the team.”
Tuchel spoke about how Chelsea players are reluctant to take the No 9 shirt because all the struggling players have worn it in the past. Apart from Lukaku, other big strikers who consider him a burden include Fernando Torres, Alvaro Morata and Gonzalo Higuain.
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It is to Aubameyang’s credit that he showed the confidence others lack to take that number. Even after signing he declared: “I have unfinished business in the Premier League.”
Aubameyang will still get more chances to play this season even if he is fit, but it looks like he will be back up to Havertz. That would be hard for him to accept.
What happened from there is open to debate. Chelsea, who hesitated to buy him just days before completing the deal (they paid €11.5 million, with Marcos Alonso going to Barcelona on a free), gave him a two-year contract with an option for another 12 months.
They have agreed terms with RB Leipzig to sign Christopher Nkunku in the summer. They have added David Datro Fofana from Molde this month and are looking at other targets to strengthen the attack.
Chelsea’s lack of goals is one of the reasons why they are 10th in the Premier League. They have scored just 20 times in 17 games, the 12th best record in the top division. Even struggling Leeds United and Leicester City have more.
In Chelsea and Aubameyang’s defence, the amount of injury problems they have had this season means their best XI is rarely on the pitch and has prevented any rhythm or understanding from developing. Raheem Sterling and Christian Pulisic joined the list of 10 absentees after going off early against City, with Mason Mount picking up an injury in training the day before.
“It’s one of those things at the moment,” Potter said. “I’ve never experienced anything like that and I don’t want to experience it here. But it is what it is, I have to move on.
“Obviously, the expectations are where they are. You want to be here, have all your players ready, a fully fit squad, and be able to compete. It’s frustrating for everyone at the moment.”
But no one is more frustrated with the situation than Aubameyang.
(Top photo: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)