It’s not a tragedy, but Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had a long, two-part uphill battle to show he’s one of the best strikers in the world.
First, the fact is Aubameyang is a very fast African player. His athletic greatness is something many of the world’s sports marvel at and demand more of. Yet there’s always been a snobby air around the phrase “he’s all pace.” There’s a pretentious presumption that a player who is simply fast lacks quality to play a game born of technical savvy.
As a footballing culture, we tend to underrate players when we can’t see their impact in dictating a game through their physical gifts. We also tend to underrate them when we percieve their impact as something solely born out of those same physical gifts. Since Aubameyang can simply outrun everyone, it’s easy to brush off any tactical knowledge of how and where he makes runs.
Another factor that plays against Pierre-Emerick is that he plays for the Gabon national team. There’s “doesn’t play for a world power” and there’s “completely off the map” in terms of international football. It’s already hard enough for many African players to get recognition when their transfer value is deflated for not not being part of a European FA (see: Lyon helping force Nabil Fekir’s hand in turning down the Algeria National Team for the much more prestigious and UEFA friendly France). It’s another thing when the nation you represent isn’t within smelling distance of the World Cup, largely African footballers only chance to star on the international stage.
So while the Toure’s, Drogba, and many other African footballers feel many of these pains, few experience them in the amount and variety of ways Aubameyang has. Spurning France himself in 2009 after only one appearance for the U21 side in favor of Gabon, he took the road less traveled to being a world class striker and the guy who puts the foot to the floor for Dortmund. And even then he’s hardly the first name people mention when it comes to the Borussians.
Aubameyang was French born to his father Pierre Francois. The elder was a staple of the Gabon national team and made his career playing as a journeyman center half in Ligue 1 until the early 2000’s. Through that career he put the younger Pierre and both of his older brothers through the Milan youth academy. Between the three brothers, they made a total of one appearance for the Rossoneri (and surprise, it wasn’t Pierre-Emerick). Catalina Aubameyang played mostly in Ligue 2 and lower level Italy before electing to play for the Gabonian club Sapins, while Willy’s most notable club was Kilmarock of the Scottish Premiership.
Pierre-Emerick was evidently the most talented of the three, making impressions in each of his four loan stints to France before being sold permanently to St. Etienne. While a member of The Greens, Aubameyang found a lot of success playing out wide to the right. His pace in combination with Ivorian Max Gradel made for one of the most potent counter-attacking forces to be reckoned with scoring 16 goals with seven assists in his first season before scoring 19 goals and 9 assists in the second season.
This earned him his move to Dortmund, the world’s most notorious group of counter attackers. The fee never was disclosed, but rumors had it at €14 million at the time, which was hardly a lucrative sum for a 24-year-old who found the net 35 times in two seasons. His first year was solid, despite not receiving much fanfare. At St. Etienne, despite being classified as a winger, Aubameyang had much freedom to roam centrally on the quick counters and be individualistic. In his first season at Dortmund he did find the net 13 times, but was often times deployed more as a true winger with Lewandowski patrolling the middle and the current right winger Blaszczykowski hampered with injuries. His pace made him a solid enough substitute winger and while his ground crossing is good, he’s hardly one to whip in an aerial ball worth salivating over.
Lewandowski left that following summer, but instead of entrusting PEA in the role of striker, Dortmund looked to reshuffle at striker with Adrian Ramos and Ciro Immobile. Neither have still looked remotely close to add up to Lewandowski. Immobile is now off at Sevilla after a season where he seemingly didn’t fit off the field and Ramos has never looked like a fit on the field. However, Aubameyang was ready to step right into that place. Klopp was reluctant at times, still pushing Immobile and Ramos in the lineup in favor of deploying Aubameyang out wide, but when he was deployed centrally he looked special. His goal in the German Super Cup featured a smart run in the box, an amazing leap over the world-class Jerome Boateng, and a Spider-Man mask, showing that he’s much more than a dash and smash threat with the kind of poaching technique even Ruud Van Nistelrooy could appreciate.
He went on to score 16 goals that season, and not just powered by pace. Pierre-Emerick has the kind of nose for goal to make for one of the world’s very best, and he makes the kind of amazing off ball runs a slower, less physically gifted player makes. His chipped goals against Wolfsburg and FC Koln are just as impressive as his extravagant front-flip celebration. He’s even one of the most unselfish players in terms of squaring it to a teammate over trying to finish a one-on-one with a keeper. He even back heel flicked a pass, made a great run down the wing, and fired a pinpoint cross to Marco Reus against the titanic Bayern Munich. The pace is the mind killer, but he’s done more than enough to shed the “only pace” label many try to give him.
And in his first full season as an out-an-out striker he’s flourishing more now than ever. His last outing he may have scored two penalties without Marco Reus there to take the spot kicks, but his three goals in his first three appearances were all from open play. He’s even shown that willingness to pass setting up Henrikh Mikhitaryan. He’s Dortmund’s third banana, and The Black and Gold are more than happy to have a player of his quality in that role. He’s not mentioned in world class forwards now, but it’ll hard to imagine a conversation to not include him when the season ends.
He’s fast. He’s Gabonese. He’s a late bloomer. However he’s also a world class finisher and makes some of the best runs in all of Europe. And strangely enough is the missing link of French wide forwards turned world class strikers. Not only is Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang pacey, he’s the modern complete package of what you want up top.