Chelsea fear the 9th curse has struck again.
When Chelsea signed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from Barcelona on deadline day last summer, he was brought in to replace Romelu Lukaku with a centre-forward who barely got a touch of the ball let alone goals.
The Belgian striker, now on loan at Inter Milan, struggled to adapt to Chelsea’s style of play and expressed his displeasure in an interview with Sky Sport Italia.
That incident overshadowed Chelsea’s first home game of 2022, a high-profile match against Liverpool. Lukaku was left out of the squad by then manager Thomas Tuchel as punishment, and although 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 after Chelsea’s opening game of the calendar year.
Aubameyang didn’t take his displeasure to the media in the same way that Lukaku did, but his distress was palpable as he suffered the ignominy of being replaced by coach Graham Potter in the 68th minute after being substituted during the 1-0 defeat. Manchester City.
As Aubameyang’s number was held up by the fourth official, the 33-year-old shook his head in disbelief more than once and barely recognized Potter as he walked past him to take his place in the dugout.
Aubameyang is not the last player to react to this scenario in this way. It’s one of the most embarrassing things that can happen to a footballer. But it revealed his frustration.
Potter went out of his way to downplay the incident, saying: “Players want to stay on the field and make an impact on the game. That’s a normal reaction.” However, there is no doubting Aubameyang’s form and lack of it, which is a big problem.
The former Arsenal captain has gone 10 games without scoring at Chelsea. He has only found the net three times for the club. This run returned in October against Crystal Palace and two matches against AC Milan.
Even more troubling, he hasn’t seemed to end the drought. It’s not like he’s going to miss an opportunity after a fluke. When he was on the pitch against City, he registered no shots and only had one touch (14 in total) inside the opposition penalty area.
This has been consistent with his output in his eight clean sheets in the Premier League. He scored just five goals in total during those matches, only two of which were on target – one in the draw at Brentford and the other in the defeat at Brighton.
As Lukaku showed in a Chelsea shirt, Aubameyang’s added problem is that when he’s not scoring, it’s hard to see what else he’s contributing. The veteran released by Arsenal last January is not involved enough in the general game. This was highlighted when he touched the ball eight times during November’s 1-0 defeat to Arsenal. It was the last time Potter named him in the first XI.
In the next five games, Armando Broja, out for the season with a knee injury, has led the line twice, and more notably, Kai Havertz has been Potter’s preferred option in the last three.
Potter highlighted the important qualities Havertz brings to the role when he scored against Bournemouth last week. The comments seemed significant for Aubameyang’s situation. He said: “At number nine, he (Havertz) gives you flexibility and variation in the game. He can drop into the game but he can also threaten the backline and score. So I like him in that position.
“We have had to adapt to a few things during this period. It’s nice to have that clarity (of a place), but sometimes it’s not possible. Players are versatile in their characteristics, 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 is scoring goals and playing for the German national team, and looking at his goalscoring record, it’s at an elite level. Whenever he has played there, he has managed to score and he has also contributed to the team.
Tuchel spoke about how Chelsea players were reluctant to take the No.9 shirt as all players have struggled wearing it in the past. Apart from Lukaku, other big strikers who found it a burden include Fernando Torres, Alvaro Morata and Gonzalo Higuain.
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To Aubameyang’s credit, he showed the confidence that others lacked to adopt the number. Indeed, after signing, he declared: “I have unfinished business in the Premier League.”
Aubameyang is getting more and more chances to play this season despite his temptation, but it looks increasingly likely that it will be as Havertz’s backup. He has a hard time accepting it.
What happens from there is open to debate. Chelsea, hesitant to buy him just days before the deal (they paid €11.5m when Marcos Alonso went to Barcelona on a free), gave him a two-year contract with the option of a 12-month extension.
They have agreed terms with RB Leipzig to sign Christopher Nkuku in the summer. They have added David Datro Fofana from Molde this month and are looking for other targets to bolster their 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 has meant that their best XI have rarely been on the pitch and prevented any rhythm or understanding from developing. Raheem Sterling and Christian Pulisic joined the list of 10 absentees after starting early against City after Mason Mount suffered a knock in training the previous day.
“It’s one of those things right now,” Potter said. “I’ve never experienced anything like it, and ideally I wouldn’t want to experience it here. But it is what it is, I just have to move on.
“Obviously, expectations are where they are. You want to be here, all your players available, a fully fit team and able to compete. It’s frustrating for everyone at the moment.”
But no one is more frustrated with the way things are going than Aubameyang.
(Top photo: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)