Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang claimed he had "unfinished business" when returning to the Premier League with Chelsea in September. And yet, barely five months later, he now needs to prove he is not finished as a player at the highest level.
Since arriving in a €12 million deal from Barcelona, the former Arsenal striker -- who left the Emirates on a free transfer in February 2022 after a deterioration in his relationship with manager Mikel Arteta -- has scored three goals in 17 appearances. He started only four Premier League games in that time and after ninth-placed Chelsea splashed out more than €350m on eight new signings in January, Aubameyang's rapidly diminishing status was underlined by his deregistration from the club's Champions League squad as manager Graham Potter opted to add three of the new additions: Enzo Fernandez, Mykhailo Mudryk and Joao Felix, the latter two acquired to reshape the team's attack.
With Chelsea opting to play Kai Havertz up front, it is difficult to see a way back for the 33-year-old Aubameyang. So much so that reported enquiries from the LAFC over a move to MLS could potentially carry some appeal -- the alternative is another four months in the wilderness at Stamford Bridge with no guarantee of a summer transfer to a major European club.
FIFA regulations stipulate a player cannot represent three different clubs in the same season, which meant speculation about a January return to Spain was always a non-starter. This included a rumoured switch back to Barcelona, when LaLiga officials made it clear to the Catalan club that re-registering Aubameyang would not be sanctioned.
MLS is about to kick-off its 2023 season, meaning Aubameyang could theoretically move to Los Angeles if his Chelsea contract was torn up. But how did it come to this for a player who scored 141 goals in 213 games for Borussia Dortmund, as well as 92 goals in 163 games for Arsenal, and was once considered one of the best strikers in Europe?
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Many would start the story with the departure of Thomas Tuchel as Chelsea head coach. Tuchel was sacked less than a week after Aubameyang arrived, denying the striker a proper reunion with the manager under whom he scored 79 goals in 95 appearances at Dortmund.
Tuchel memorably offered a public defence of Aubameyang's character when he was stripped of the Arsenal captaincy for disciplinary issues in December 2021, revealing they were still in regular contact, and so the chance to reignite that relationship at Stamford Bridge palpably appealed to both. As it turns out, the pair had just one game together -- an ignominious 1-0 defeat to Dinamo Zagreb -- before Tuchel left on Sept. 7.
Chelsea face Dortmund next Wednesday in their Champions League round of 16, first-leg clash and instead of plotting against their former club, Tuchel is now unemployed and Aubameyang will watch the game from afar.
It was widely suggested that Tuchel helped convince Chelsea to sign Aubameyang. But in the immediate aftermath of Tuchel's exit, senior team sources told ESPN that the dynamic had been "misreported" and he was in fact a club signing, compatible with "the philosophy, character [and] style of football the club wants to play." If that can be taken at face value -- and there are surely doubts given Aubameyang hardly fits the profile of young, progressive talents, signed to long-term contracts, that Chelsea have aggressively pursued of late -- then the club must take a degree of responsibility for what has happened since. After all, there have not been the same behavioural problems that characterised the end of the striker's time at Arsenal.
Sources have told ESPN that at Arsenal, Arteta grew frustrated with Aubameyang's poor timekeeping relating to team meetings. There were also multiple issues around his compliance with COVID-19 protocols, including missing a test before a Europa League game -- an incident for which he was fined. By contrast, Potter insisted last Friday that Aubameyang "has done nothing wrong at all" in explaining his omission from Chelsea's Champions League squad, claiming instead he was simply a victim of a bloated group in which there would inevitably be winners and losers.
Equally, sources at Barcelona speak positively about Aubameyang's six-month spell. There were no questions about his attitude, and he scored important goals -- 13 in 24 games -- to help secure Xavi's side a second-place finish in LaLiga. His stay was so brief largely because of Barcelona's financial issues and the €45m arrival of Robert Lewandowski from Bayern Munich.
How Aubameyang reacts now will be vital. It is virtually inevitable this will be his one and only season at Chelsea, especially given a deal has already been agreed to sign France forward Christopher Nkunku from RB Leipzig at the end of the season.
AC Milan and Atletico Madrid have reportedly shown some interest in a summer move for Aubameyang, but any signs of him putting in minimal effort might make potential suitors think twice about a player heading into his mid-30s. Opportunities for Aubameyang to revive his fortunes at Chelsea may come in the weeks ahead, but they are likely to be off the bench. His record in that regard offers only limited encouragement: he has 207 goals in 360 top-flight league games (0.6 goals per game) as a starter, and just 12 in 61 (0.2 goals per game) as a substitute.
Potter has the challenging task of taking expensively acquired component parts and moulding them into a team capable of climbing up the table. Yet despite arriving in the early throes of the Todd Boehly/Clearlake Capital era, Aubameyang already appears to occupy a place in that awkward space between the team Chelsea were and the one they want to be. In some respects, he is a victim of circumstance and scrambled planning to some extent, but the aim ahead of him is to prove his ability still endures.
He has always been a flamboyant character, with Tuchel among those managers willing to accept his eccentricities for the goal return he so often delivered, while his brief time at Barcelona points to lingering quality. But Aubameyang is battling to avoid becoming another entry in the longstanding so-called "curse of the No. 9 shirt" at Chelsea, along with the likes of Fernando Torres, Radamel Falcao, Alvaro Morata, Gonzalo Higuain and Romelu Lukaku.
More than that, he is battling to save his own career.