The image of Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre‑Emerick Aubameyang grooving together in celebration has become a theme of Arsenal’s season. It is a symbol of a kinship that clicks on and off the pitch, and it came out again as they careered away to celebrate an away goal at Valencia in the semi-finals.
It was made by Lacazette’s leap to head the ball to his mate and finished with Aubameyang’s acrobatic flick. It resonated to see them marching to the Europa League final together, because last season, to Arsenal’s frustration, that was impossible.
During the semi-final last May, which Arsenal lost narrowly against Atlético Madrid, Lacazette shouldered the burden on his own while Aubameyang kicked his heels in frustration at home. The Gabon striker was in the bizarre position of being forbidden from playing in Europe. A quirk in Uefa regulations meant Arsenal’s record signing was cup-tied even though he had been playing for Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League before his transfer in January 2018. At the time Arsène Wenger complained that the rule was archaic. It has since been abolished.
And then there were two. It is their obvious preference to play in tandem and they are eager to make up for the annoyance of last season’s restrictions. “It’s different because we have Auba,” says Lacazette about this European campaign. “Auba is a really good striker and the defenders find it difficult to take care of him.” Defenders certainly have more to think about when playing Arsenal now. Exhibit A: Valencia were punished by the pair seven times as they ran amok, happily setting up each other where possible. Their display had the stamp of Champions League quality so it is little wonder they are so keen to get back there.
It felt like a defining moment for a team trying to find a new path under Unai Emery. All season he has talked about the challenge of finding balance, of creating just the right temperature to keep defence and attack boiling nicely at the same time. That has been easier said than done but the bar has been set in the Europa League knockout rounds. It took a few months of experimenting for Emery to realise that whatever he does he really has to start with his strikers and work it out from there. Chelsea know their biggest problem is two-pronged.
“Playing with Auba is always a pleasure for me,” Lacazette says. “We work a lot in training to be quicker and have a good relationship.” They play with an obvious rapport but Lacazette is quick to point out there is the odd glitch. “Sometimes it is wrong!” he says, laughing. “Sometimes he goes left and I put the ball right. But normally we work a lot to be on the same wavelength. We want to be as perfect as possible.”
Although it would be natural to have some competition in the search for goals, there is no edge if one scores more than the other. “I am not jealous of anyone,” Lacazette says. “I just want to win trophies; Auba as well. It is always better to play together but when one plays and the other stays on the bench you just have to help the team when you can.”
For players of their quality, they have not won many trophies. Aubameyang has one League Cup from his time in France and one German Cup. Lacazette has one French Cup seven years ago. He is also overlooked by Didier Deschamps for the France team, which hurts. What more does he have to do than score regularly in the Premier League and Europe? “Maybe I need to score 30 or 40 goals, I don’t know.”
Aubameyang is the senior man on the goals chart this season with 31 goals and eight assists, and a share of the Premier League golden boot. He is in exalted company in having scored more than 25 goals in each of the last five seasons – only Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suárez, Robert Lewandowski and Sergio Agüero have achieved that level of consistent threat. Lacazette’s 19 goals and 13 assists demonstrate how his talent goes beyond the predatory.
Their differing characteristics complement each other. Lacazette was named Arsenal’s player of the season in recognition of his relentless work, his capacity to track back, hassle defenders and start attacks. Aubameyang is more of a flashes player, who can appear to drift before suddenly scoring.
Arsenal, for all their trust in the attacking duo, could not be happier that Danny Welbeck has made it back from serious injury to be available from the bench as another option to take the game to Chelsea.
Lacazette celebrated his 28th birthday on the eve of the final in Baku. Aubameyang is 29. They are at peak age but winning trophies and returning to the Champions League, feels urgent. Lacazette makes that plain: “We just have to win the final.”