Chelsea’s No 9 problem isn’t going away – ignominy for Aubameyang highlights it

Chelsea’s No 9 problem isn’t going away – ignominy for Aubameyang highlights it

Chelsea must be fearing the No 9 curse has struck 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 got a touch of the ball, let alone scored goals, in Romelu Lukaku.

The Belgium striker, who is now on loan at Inter Milan, struggled to fit into Chelsea’s style of play and expressed his dissatisfaction during an unsanctioned interview with Sky Sport Italia.

That incident overshadowed Chelsea’s first home game of 2022a high-profile fixture against Liverpool. Lukaku was left out of the squad as a 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 is Aubameyang’s turn to be a talking point for the wrong reasons following Chelsea’s opening home fixture of the calendar year.

Aubameyang did not make his displeasure known to the media in the manner Lukaku did, but his angst was clear to see as he suffered the ignominy of being substituted by coach Graham Potter 68 minutes after coming on as a substitute during the 1-0 loss to Manchester City.

When Aubameyang’s number was held up by the fourth official, the 33-year-old shook his head in disbelief on more than one occasion and barely acknowledged Potter as he walked past him to take his place in the dugout.

Aubameyang will not be the last player to react to this scenario this way. It is one of the most embarrassing things to happen to a footballer. But it exposed his frustration.

Potter did his utmost to downplay the incident, saying: “Players want to stay on the pitch and influence the game. It’s a normal reaction.” However, what is not in doubt is Aubameyang’s form, and lack of it, which is a major 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 came back in October against Crystal Palace and two matches versus AC Milan.

More worryingly, he has not looked like ending the drought. It is not as if he is missing chance after chance. During the time he was on the pitch against City, he registered no shots and had just one touch (of 14 in total) in the opposition penalty area.

That has been in keeping with his output in his eight scoreless games in the Premier League. He amassed just five efforts on goal in total during those fixtures with only two of those strikes on target — one in the draw at Brentford and another in the loss at Brighton.

Like Lukaku showed in a Chelsea shirt, the added problem with Aubameyang is that when he is not scoring, it is hard to see what else he contributes. The veteran, who was released by Arsenal last January, is not involved in the general play enough. This was highlighted when he touched the ball on eight occasions 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 that have followed, Armando Brojawho is out for the season with a knee injury, has led the line twice and more tellingly, Kai Havertz has been Potter’s preferred option in the last three.

Potter made a point of highlighting what important qualities Havertz brings to the role after he scored against Bournemouth last week. The comments seemed significant as far as Aubameyang’s situation is concerned. He said: “As a nine, he (Havertz) gives you the flexibility and variability in the game. He can drop in but he can also threaten the back line and he can score. So I like him in that position.

“With the period that we’ve had, we’ve had to adapt a few things. It’s nice to get that clarity (on position), but sometimes it’s not possible. The players are multifaceted in terms of their qualities so they can play in a few positions. And Kai is one of those.

“I have to make the (team selection) decision based on what I think every day in training and Kai scores goals and plays for the German national team, and looking at his goal record there, it is elite level. Whenever he’s played there, he’s managed to score and he’s also contributed to the team.”

Tuchel spoke about how Chelsea players were reluctant to take the No 9 jersey because of all the players who have struggled wearing it in the past. As well as Lukaku, other big strikers who found it a burden include Fernando Torres, Alvaro Morata and Gonzalo Higuain.

Where to go next on The Athletic

It is to Aubameyang’s credit that he showed the confidence others lacked to take the number on. Indeed after signing he declared: “I have unfinished business in the Premier League.”

Aubameyang will still get more chances to play this season despite his fit of pique, but it increasingly looks likely it will be as the backup to Havertz. That will be hard for him to accept.

What happens from there is open to debate. Chelsea, who were hesitating to buy him just a few days before completing the deal (they paid €11.5million, with Mark Alonso going to Barcelona on a free), gave him a two-year contract with the option of 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.

Fofana has arrived from Molde (Photo: Maria Jose Segovia/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

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 matches, the 12th-best record in the top division. Even struggling Leeds United and Leicester City have more.

In Chelsea’s and Aubameyang’s defence, the number of injury problems they have suffered this season has meant their best XI has rarely been on the pitch and has prevented any rhythm or understanding to develop. Raheem Sterling and Christian Pulisic joined the list of 10 absentees after going off early against City, with Mason Mount suffering a knock in training the day before.

“It’s one of those things at the moment,” Potter said. “I’ve never experienced anything like it and I’d ideally not want to experience it here. But it is what it is, I have to just carry on.

“Obviously, the expectation is where it is. You want to be here, have all your players available, a fully fit squad, and be able to compete. It is frustrating for everybody at the moment.”

But no one is more frustrated at how things are going than Aubameyang.

(Top photo: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

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