Signed for Tuchel, Aubameyang ironically the key to Potter inspiring Chelsea momentum

By Sports Desk September 30, 2022

It's 22 days since Graham Potter took over from Thomas Tuchel at Chelsea, and yet he's only just about to take charge of his first Premier League match when they go to Selhurst Park on Saturday.

Potter's one game at the helm came in the 1-1 Champions League draw with Salzburg on September 14, with the postponements following Queen Elizabeth II's death and the subsequent international break ultimately making it a fairly quiet introduction to life at Stamford Bridge.

But with 13 matches across all competitions to fit into the next seven weeks before top-flight football pauses for the World Cup, Potter can ill afford to not inspire some momentum.

Arguably Chelsea's chief problem in the early weeks of the season was a lack of goals, scoring more than once in just three games, and on each occasion they never managed more than two goals.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's arrival at the end of the transfer window was seen as a welcome relief, particularly given how effective he'd been under Tuchel in the past.

Well, that reunion didn't last long, but Potter knows Aubameyang could be the key to kick-starting their season.

A player with baggage

Any concerns Chelsea fans might have about Aubameyang will likely revolve around his attitude and professionalism – few will have forgotten the circumstances that led to his Arsenal exit.

But for those who have, here's the overview.

Last March he was dropped ahead of the north London derby due to a disciplinary issue, perhaps something you wouldn't expect of the club captain – although he was "reminded of his responsibilities" a month earlier after reportedly flouting COVID-19 restrictions to get a tattoo.

Either way, Mikel Arteta continued to give him the benefit of the doubt until another breach of club rules in December was essentially the end of his stay with the Gunners.

Arteta excluded him from the team, ended his reign as captain and made his stance on the player crystal clear when allowing Aubameyang to join up with the Gabon squad early ahead of the Africa Cup of Nations.

The fact many coaches and managers routinely bemoan the timing of the AFCON should highlight how unusual – damning, even – this was.

On February 1, Arsenal confirmed Aubameyang had left the club by mutual consent, paving the way for him to join Barcelona – talk about failing upwards.

"I am living the dream," he said in a Guardian interview published two days later.

In the same interview, Aubameyang suggested Arteta was the only person to have an issue with his conduct. Perhaps he'd still be at Arsenal were it not for his tardiness in December.

A point to prove

He is back in London, however. Aubameyang's stay in Barcelona was little more than a sojourn.

After joining them officially in February, he must've been aware there was always a chance Barca could look to cash in on him quite quickly if the opportunity arose.

President Joan Laporta was desperately trying to raise cash in order to register their swathe of pre-season signings, and the combination of Aubameyang retaining decent market value and being on high wages made him a very sellable option on their part, they just needed someone to come calling.

Given his rather scattergun approach to being an interim sporting director, new Chelsea co-owner Todd Boehly probably should've been the obvious candidate, though Aubameyang's links to Tuchel helped the deal make sense.

What made slightly less sense was the fact Boehly sacked Tuchel only a week after Aubameyang signed. Granted, the German isn't the only coach who'd be able to get a tune out of the forward, but you have to wonder what the player was thinking.

Tuchel's familiarity with Aubameyang from their time together at Borussia Dortmund was evident in how he spoke of the 33-year-old shortly after the signing was confirmed.

He said: "Auba, from my point of view, has always been happy to fight for something and to accept the challenge, so the more challenges he has the better it is.

"I know him as [being] very focused and in general a person with a very open heart and very happy to be on the pitch every day. This is what we wanted, he's a very positive influence on the training group.

"He's up for any challenge, he's happy to be on the pitch to score goals and this is what we want."

The "challenge" Tuchel was initially referring to was ending the so-called number nine curse at Chelsea, though it could now extend to winning over a new coach.

A striker out of left field

One of the first things Aubameyang highlighted after joining Barcelona was how Xavi said he'd been earmarked to play specifically as a number nine.

Let's not forget, he spent a great deal of his time at Arsenal operating from the left, and for the most part he was effective there. Yet, you could argue his finishing abilities weren't maximised in that position.

Between the 2015-16 and 2020-21 seasons, Aubameyang averaged at least 0.7 goals per 90 minutes every campaign for Dortmund and then Arsenal, bettering or matching his expected goals (xG, per 90 mins.) in all but one season. Even then, the one term he fell short, he was still scoring at a rate of 0.8 every 90 minutes. Over the short term, one might suggest outperforming xG is a sign of luck, but over a prolonged period it is surely a product of quality.

Aubameyang certainly cannot be accused of being ineffective as a central striker for Barca. His average of 0.8 non-penalty goals per 90 minutes was his best record since 2016-17 (0.8), and he helped Barca enjoy a fine second half of the season to eventually finish runners-up in LaLiga.

His form for Arsenal had been less convincing before his departure. He'd scored only four league goals from 6.6 xG – a comparison of his shot maps last term does show much greater localisation to the centre of the area while at Barca, perhaps understandable given his use as a number nine, though that doesn't completely explain why he underperformed in relation to xG while still at Arsenal.

Aubameyang will hope that spell with Barcelona was something of a palate cleanser. He said himself he has unfinished business in the Premier League.

Uncertainty and intrigue definitely surround his move to Chelsea given Tuchel is no longer there, but if Aubameyang does return to silence his critics then there's every reason to suggest Potter will hit the ground running as well.

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