Amid the unbridled joy of a victory in the West Midlands last night, Arsenal fans had another reason to celebrate, one perhaps more important than the victory itself…the return of their captain and talisman to his goal-scoring best.
By any measure, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had a rotten 2020/21 campaign; 12 months that were marred by severe illness, personal troubles and a downturn in the team’s form that left him isolated and frustrated up top.
But for something like 70 minutes in West Bromwich last night, the Aubameyang of yesteryear was back and, boy, how we have missed him. There was a sharpness to his movement that I scarcely recognised, he was busy and industrious and his finishing was sublime. His third goal in particular was magnificent, the finish of a man brimming with confidence and swagger.
Between signing his new deal and last night, we had seen almost nothing of the menace and verve that have been his trademark for years. Like Samson without his hair, Auba had spent months toiling alone up front or on the left in a team, powerless to affect games and unable to do anything with the scraps he was given.
Last night, the source of his power was restored and it was marvellous.
Of course, before we all get carried away with our very own Return of the King, it’s worth remembering that, for the opening 25 minutes of the match, we looked very much like the Arsenal of the last 12 months. We failed to keep possession, our passing was careless, our movement muddled and our defence was panicked. But for some inexperience and quality on the part of the hosts, we may even have found ourselves behind before we eventually opened the scoring.
In short, there was little to like about our performance until we managed to steal into the lead. From then on, as if by magic, we were a team transformed – playing the sort of football we should have been playing from the outset. West Brom were callow and naive and we tore them to shreds, scoring regularly and mercilessly to register the sort of win we haven’t seen or experienced in what feels like an age.
The destroyer in chief was, of course, the captain and hat-trick maestro but Nicolas Pepe was superb, Bukayo Saka looked like he’d found his feet, and Martin Odegaard was deft and oozing guile. Alex Lacazette looks increasingly like a man who should be handed a 12-month extension and Aaron Ramsdale was calm and assured in making a clutch of good saves to keep our sheet clean. There was scarcely a foot put wrong throughout the team.
For all that, however, the reality is that this foray into the Carabao Cup was like stepping into a parallel universe for a few days. Premier League teams are so far above the standard of West Brom that it’s not even worth attempting to compare. Our troubles keeping possession and building attacks haven’t gone away, they were just on hold for a day or two for the League Cup.
That much will be brought sharply back into focus at the weekend when we face Manchester City, a team that will afford us none of the time and space on the ball we were afforded last night, while simultaneously attacking with the sort of punishing relentlessness we served up at the Hawthorns.
It’s not all doom and gloom, of course. There was lots to like about how we played last night and some minutes and sharpness in the legs of Odegaard, Saka, and Aubameyang will be absolutely vital to our efforts at the weekend and in the important weeks thereafter as we bid to get our season up and running in the Premier League.
For a little while though, we can bask in the glow of a quite superb 6-0 victory in which we were treated to the very best of Arsenal and the very best of the peerless Aubameyang. If the sharpness on offer last night was a signal of a fresh start for him in this campaign, that could turn out to be the real victory for us.