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

Chelsea must fear that the number 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, in Romelu Lukaku.

The Belgian striker, who is now on loan at Inter Milan, has struggled to fit into Chelsea’s style of play and expressed his displeasure during an off-the-cuff 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 by then coach Thomas Tuchel as punishment 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 a talking point for all the wrong reasons after Chelsea’s opening game of the calendar year.

Aubameyang did not make his displeasure known to the media in the way that Lukaku did, but his anguish was evident when he suffered the ignominy of being replaced by coach Graham Potter on 68 minutes after coming on as a substitute during the 1-0 defeat came against. 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.

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Aubameyang won’t be the last player to react to this scenario like this. This is one of the most embarrassing things to happen to a football player. But it exposed 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.” What is not in doubt, however, is Aubameyang’s form, and the lack of it, which is a major problem.

The former Arsenal captain went 10 appearances without a goal for Chelsea. He only found the net three times for the club. That run came back in October against Crystal Palace and two games against AC Milan.

More worryingly, he doesn’t appear to have ended the drought. It’s not like he misses opportunity after opportunity. During his time on the pitch against City, he registered no shots and had just one touch (out of 14 in total) in the opposition penalty area.

It was in keeping with his output in his eight Premier League clean sheets. He managed just five attempts on goal in total during those games with only two of those strikes on target – one in the draw at Brentford and another in the loss 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, who was released by Arsenal last January, is not involved enough in the general game. This was highlighted when he touched the ball eight times during the 1-0 defeat to Arsenal in November. This was the last occasion Potter named him in the first XI.

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In the five games that followed, Armando Broja, out for the season with a knee injury, led the way twice and, more tellingly, Kai Havertz was Potter’s preferred option in the final three.

Potter made a point of highlighting the key qualities Havertz brings to the role after scoring against Bournemouth last week. The comments seemed significant regarding Aubameyang’s situation. He said: “At nine he (Havertz) gives you the flexibility and volatility 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 we had, we had to adjust a few things. It’s nice to get that clarity (about position), but sometimes it’s not possible. The players are multi-faceted in terms of their attributes, 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 is scoring goals and playing for the German national team, and if I look at his goal record there, it’s elite level. Whenever he played there, he managed to score and he also contributed to the team.”

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Tuchel spoke about how Chelsea players were reluctant to play the no. 9 jersey because of all the players who have struggled to wear it in the past. As well as Lukaku, other big forwards who make it 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 lacked in taking on the number. Indeed, after the signing he declared: “I have unfinished business in the Premier League.”

Aubameyang will still get more chances to play this season despite his piction, but it looks increasingly likely that it will be as back-up to Havertz. It will be hard for him to accept.

What happens from there is open to debate. Chelsea, who hesitated to buy him just days before completing the deal (they paid €11.5m, with Marcos 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 added David Datro Fofana from Molde this month and are looking at other targets to strengthen the attack.

Fofana 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 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 number of injury problems they have had this season has meant 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, with Mason Mount picking up a knock in training the previous day.

“It’s one of those things right now,” Potter said. “I have never experienced anything like this and ideally I would not want to experience it here. But it is what it is, I just have to move 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’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)


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