Eliot Rothwell evaluates how Dortmund's free-scoring frontman soared to the summit and, with Arsenal, Liverpool and Barcelona all linked with moves, considers where he might end up next...
“Every part of me wants to be here,” Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang grinned. It was the summer of 2015 and the striker had just extended his Borussia Dortmund contract, lengthening his spell in the Ruhr coalfields until 2020.
“I feel very happy at the club, in this team and in this city,” the 26-year-old said, content with an improved second season in Germany in which he scored 26 goals in all competitions and picked up Dortmund’s player of the season prize.
That season was a tumultuous one for the club, who spent much of it languishing at the wrong half of the table before finally clicking into gear in the spring and securing a Europa League spot. Jurgen Klopp, the head coach with a strong emotional hold on the club and city, announced he was leaving, generating an outpouring of grief. But Thomas Tuchel’s appointment as coach has acted as a catalyst for revival at the Westfalenstadion. Second only to Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga this season, Dortmund have their swagger back – and Aubameyang is in the form of his life.
Dortmund have found the ability to cut through the stacked lines and Aubameyang – always an explosive player – has honed his ability inside the box
The Gabon international has been spectacular all season, but hat-tricks cause a particular stir, and with two in as many games against Qabala and Augsburg, Aubameyang is now on the radar of just about all of the world's biggest clubs. The trebles illustrate Aubameyang’s proficiency in every aspect of the game; a lovely curled strike into the top corner for his first against Qabala was followed by poachers’ efforts from inside the penalty box against Augsburg.
The goals against the latter, in particular, demonstrate a player who has adapted as Dortmund’s tactics have progressed under the reforming Tuchel. In that last season under Klopp, they often looked lost for ideas against teams that were comfortable in setting up two rigid banks of four and allowing them possession to reduce the potency of gegenpressing.
But after a pre-season of working with the dynamic Tuchel, Dortmund have found the ability to cut through the stacked lines and Aubameyang – always an explosive player – has honed his ability inside the box, with his quick movement and spatial awareness responsible for all three of his strikes against Augsburg. If Robert Lewandowski is currently the apogee of the complete striker, Aubameyang is a close second.
Main man up top
Lewandowski is a player intimately linked with Aubameyang’s Dortmund progression. When the Gabonese forward signed from Saint-Etienne in 2013, Klopp often positioned him on the right side of the attack, with Lewandowski dominating the central striking role. Before signing, Aubameyang had suggested his style was perfectly matched to Klopp’s football, but after a stuttering debut campaign yielded only 16 goals in all competitions – three of those coming on his Bundesliga debut against Augsburg – the German coach considered selling the forward, only to be dissuaded by CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke and sporting director Michael Zorc.
When Lewandowski joined Bayern, Aubameyang was given the central attacking role and he hasn’t looked back since. Earlier in the season he admitted he was benefitting from playing in his favoured position, and it’s not hard to see why – both strikers now sit top of the Bundesliga scoring charts, with 13 goals from just 10 games.
In Dortmund’s 5-1 defeat to Bayern Munich he became the only player ever to net in each of the Bundesliga’s first eight matches of the season, and equalled Klaus Allofs’ run of scoring in 10 consecutive games for Cologne in 1984.
It’s a sign of Aubameyang’s character, though, that in Dortmund’s ninth game of the campaign against Mainz, the striker didn’t throw a hissy fit when regular penalty taker Marco Reus took charge from 12 yards (and duly missed). Instead, he set up both goals in the 2-0 win, with Reus one of the beneficiaries of his selflessness.
All eyes on Auba
There is a fear that Aubameyang’s scintillating form may attract an offer too good to refuse from one of Europe’s ‘super clubs’
As ever with Dortmund, however – a club still scarred by the losses of Lewandowski and Mario Gotze – there is a fear that Aubameyang’s scintillating form may attract an offer too good to refuse from one of Europe’s ‘super clubs’. Zorc aimed to end speculation recently, telling Bild that there are no plans to sell following speculation of a future move to Barcelona, but the striker has fanned the flames by admitting that playing in Spain is a long-held dream.
In an interview with BBC World Service, Aubameyang insisted he is “100% committed” to the Dortmund cause, but offered a prophecy that the club had been dreading. “One day I'll leave to play in another league,” he admitted. “Lots of people think that the Premier League would good for me but my mum is Spanish and I really have that dream to play over there.”
If Barcelona have been keeping tabs on the striker as reports suggest, Aubameyang’s words will offer encouraging signs but, given the 26-year-old’s supreme form, there are others watching too.
Perhaps typically given his pre-existing relationship with Klopp, he has been widely linked with a move to Liverpool should he decide to call time on his Dortmund days before the end of his current contract. Some reports have misguidedly suggested the striker could pitch up at Anfield in January, but it would take the sort of monumental offer more associated with Real Madrid to persuade Dortmund to part with their prized asset at this stage.
Premier League persuasion
Not only does the player already speak good English, Aubameyang seems ideally suited to Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal
There are also considerable doubts as to whether Aubameyang would agree to move anywhere without regular and established Champions League football. His next move looks destined to lead him to one of Europe’s wealth elite, and with the player suggesting that the Premier League is not on his immediate wishlist, Barcelona and Madrid appear the most likely destinations.
England would certainly have its perks, however: the prospect of being a valued first-choice striker being one of them. Not only does the player already speak good English, Aubameyang seems ideally suited to Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal, having proved himself in spectacular fashion as a lone frontman at Dortmund. It’s hard to imagine Wenger wouldn’t be interested. Nor for that matter Chelsea, whose reliance on Diego Costa to stay fit and in referees’ good books surely won’t continue beyond the current campaign. At 26, Aubameyang is approaching his prime, and both clubs could afford him.
For now, though, Dortmund are enjoying themselves with the striker who’s reportedly quicker than Usain Bolt over 30 metres. Aubameyang’s blossoming on-field partnership with Reus, who recently told Ruhr Nachrichten of their “great relationship”, has been at the centre of Dortmund’s return to the upper echelons of the Bundesliga where the club feel they belong.
“He’s irreplaceable for us when he's on this form,” Tuchel said of his striker after the hat-trick against Qabala. Dortmund will be hoping that their irreplaceable striker doesn't leave them in his wake just yet.