It was during one of their many trips to London over the summer that some of the new Chelsea owners took captain Cesar Azpilicueta out for dinner.
The bond between them is already a strong one. Azpilicueta, who was given a new two-year contract last month, is trusted for the insight he can provide from the dressing room.
One of the subjects that came up in their exchange was why Azpilicueta thought the club have had so many problems filling the centre-forward position. No one can accuse the club of not spending to try to find a solution to “the No 9 curse”, as coach Thomas Tuchel describes it. Around £200million ($230m) in transfer fees was spent on Fernando Torres, Alvaro Morata, Romelu Lukaku and Gonzalo Higuain (loan) in the past 11 years to name just four who have worn the shirt number. That doesn’t include the fortune in wages on top and none of them proved value for money, although there will be some in the fanbase who will champion Torres’s exploits in Europe.
Diego Costa, bought from Atletico Madrid for £32million in 2014, was a big success for three seasons of course, but he wore No 19 at Stamford Bridge. Costa was very much the exception as far as strikers are concerned since all-time great Didier Drogba was at the club (2004-12, 2014-15). Academy product Tammy Abraham (15 in 2019-20) actually has the best goals return for a striker in a Premier League season since Costa’s 20 in 2016-17. But he is now playing for Roma.
It is believed Azpilicueta, who has counted Torres, Morata, Lukaku and Higuain as team-mates during his decade at the club, found it hard to explain the cause for so much disappointment, suggesting that one of the factors could simply be the great pressure leading the line for Chelsea brings.
Just like most summer transfer windows, Chelsea were linked with a host of names this year, from Cristiano Ronaldo and Robert Lewandowski to emerging stars Rafael Leao and Christopher Nkunku.
But it wasn’t until deadline day that a purchase was made and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was officially announced as the new No 9. While not a surprise given the number of weeks his name had been connected to Chelsea, the transfer came just seven months after his contract at rivals Arsenal was terminated due to disciplinary problems and he moved to Barcelona.
Now he is with the Chelsea squad as they kick off their Champions League campaign away at Dinamo Zagreb, with a great chance of making his debut.
So how did this move come about and why, at 33, do Chelsea think he can make an impact where others couldn’t?
The fact Aubameyang arrived so late in the window — Chelsea’s announcement actually came around 80 minutes after the 11pm deadline on September 1 but a deal sheet gave them extra time to complete the paperwork — hardly sends out the message he was the first choice all along.
Chelsea’s need for a striker was obvious from the moment the Todd Boehly-Clearlake consortium agreed to Lukaku’s request to rejoin Inter Milan on loan.
There were highly publicised talks between Boehly and Ronaldo’s agent Jorge Mendes in Portugal just a few days before Lukaku’s departure in late June. The prospect of signing the Manchester United forward, who wanted to leave Old Trafford, was given serious consideration but it was soon ruled out, with Tuchel one of those particularly not keen for it to happen.
There was genuine interest in Bayern Munich’s Lewandowski too. However, the Poland international set his heart on a switch to Barcelona so it didn’t develop into much more than that. Nkunku ended up signing a new contract at RB Leipzig so that was put into the 2023 to-do basket. AC Milan made it pretty clear that Leao was not for sale too. Others thought to take their fancy were Napoli’s Victor Osimhen and Lille’s Jonathan David, but neither option went very far either.
So, to Aubameyang. In some ways, you could argue it was inevitable. Barcelona and Chelsea were having discussions from an early stage anyway because the La Liga club wanted to sign Azpilicueta and left-back Marcos Alonso. Boehly was filmed going to a meeting with Barcelona officials in the Catalan city two months ago and it was described as a positive encounter.
Then of course there is Aubameyang’s strong connection with coach Tuchel, for whom he played at Borussia Dortmund between 2015-17. Tuchel was certainly keen. It still took several weeks into the window for Chelsea to make their move. Barcelona coach Xavi liked what Aubameyang had done since arriving at the start of the year with 13 goals in just 24 appearances. But their busy recruitment meant they would have to let some players go so they could register the newcomers.
Talks began between intermediaries and Aubameyang’s camp around early August. Chelsea were given encouragement that he would consider a return to London. Contrary to reports, personal terms weren’t agreed upon from the get-go. The former Gabon international wanted a three-year deal but Chelsea were only prepared to offer a contract up till 2024 with a 12-month option.
Both sides had good cause for their stance. Chelsea obviously took his age into account, plus they wanted to keep some incentive as part of it, to encourage the veteran to earn a longer stay. As for Aubameyang, he was just asking for the same length of agreement as he had at Barcelona, plus wanted some protection in case of a change of manager at Stamford Bridge down the line led to him playing for a coach who didn’t rate him.
There were also issues over the fee Barcelona wanted. It is thought they were looking for as much as €25million (£21.6m, $24.8m). That was a sum Chelsea weren’t willing to pay, plus they intended to include Alonso going in the other direction as part of it. Throughout August, there was a lot of communication back and forth between various personnel, but things didn’t look good as the last weekend before the deadline began.
Sources told The Athletic that Chelsea’s interest was over, suggesting a combination of his age, the terms and his character not being quite the right fit into the culture they were trying to build. However, things turned around in the space of a few days. First, Xavi sent a significant signal to where Aubameyang now stood by leaving him as an unused substitute during Barcelona’s 4-0 win over Real Valladolid.
Then came the frightening armed robbery at his family home in the early hours of the Monday morning, an incident that left him with a broken jaw. Understandably, the possibility of moving to England became more attractive, although the nature of the injury concerned Chelsea because their initial impression was that he wouldn’t get much game time before the World Cup.
But there were two more important twists. Chelsea lost 2-1 at Southampton on the Tuesday, their second Premier League defeat away from home in a row and another match where they struggled to pose a threat in attack after a bright start. Aubameyang, knowing his jaw cost him some leverage, indicated he would now accept a two-year contract with a 12-month option after all.
Going into the final day, the transfer fee was the main thing left to settle. Chelsea initially offered €7.5million plus Alonso, but ended up paying €11.5m, with Alonso joining Barcelona on a free. It left Aubameyang enough time to board a flight to London, undergo his medical and sign the paperwork at the club’s training ground. “I have unfinished business in the Premier League,” he declared with a smile. The missing piece in Tuchel’s squad had been filled.
In some ways, the “how” is the least important part of the story. For many football fans, the question might be “why?”
Aubameyang’s reputation took quite a dent with the way he left Arsenal in January and it features prominently in a few episodes of the Amazon documentary All or Nothing.
Arsenal coach Mikel Arteta talked about having a file listing all the occasions Aubameyang had been late and/or broken the rules. Not only did he feel it justified his decision to omit the player from training and for matches, but it was evidence in case things got legal between the player and the club. That never came to pass because of the mutual decision to rip up the contract, which allowed Aubameyang to go to Barcelona. Yet such was the negative picture painted of him in the TV show, many will question whether Tuchel is taking a risk.
But as has been well documented, few know Aubameyang or seem to gel with him better than Tuchel. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Julian Weigl and Ousmane Dembele all hit new heights as players under Tuchel at Borussia Dortmund, but no individual improved more than the frontman during the manager’s stint at the Bundesliga club between 2015-17.
Aubameyang scored 79 goals in all competitions across those two seasons, beating Lewandowski (then at Bayern Munich) to the leading goalscorer trophy in 2016-17. Aubameyang’s explosive development owed much to Tuchel’s careful coaching and man-management. Under predecessor Jurgen Klopp, the forward had thrived on transition moments but Tuchel slowed down Dortmund’s game and taught Aubameyang to make smaller runs inside the box. There were a lot of one-to-one video sessions, resulting in the player making much better decisions in the final third. A classic ploy at the time was Dortmund switching play with a chipped ball towards right-back Matthias Ginter, who would pull it back for an Aubameyang tap-in. Take note Reece James.
With his penchant for flash cars, rhinestone clothing and fur coats, Aubameyang wasn’t the most natural fit for the working-class Ruhr area and neither was Tuchel, a tactics auteur who cared little for folklore and emotions. But together, they clicked. “Tuchel shows me how to move,” Aubameyang said. “It’s an honour to coach him,” Tuchel gushed.
The coach had realised early on that Aubameyang needed special dispensation to perform at his best. Tuchel frequently indulged the striker’s problems with punctuality and only once banished him from the squad after he’d flown off to Milan two days before a Champions League game. Their excellent relationship wasn’t affected by the episode. A chastened Aubameyang duly returned to score four goals against Hamburger SV in the following game, apologising to Tuchel and his team profusely.
Aubameyang’s goals powered Dortmund to a DFB-Pokal win (2017) and the league’s best-ever runners-up finish behind Pep Guardiola’s Bayern (2016). However, it wasn’t all rosy. His privileges in the dressing room also bred resentment. An influential section of the team felt Aubameyang set a bad example to others and the dressing room became a little fractured as a result.
The duo have stayed in contact ever since, even after Tuchel’s departure from Dortmund five years ago. The warmth in which the latter has spoken about Aubameyang over the years emphasises the level of respect between them. Before Chelsea’s game against Arsenal in May last year, in what was Tuchel’s first match against him as a coach in English football, the German was asked if he’d want to sign him one day. Tuchel replied with a hint of regret: “He does not get younger, that’s the problem.”
Now they are reunited, Tuchel couldn’t be happier. He has said a lot of things about the acquisition over the last few days, but it was while speaking to the club’s 5th Stand app that he gave some fresh insight into the way he sees Aubameyang’s role as a senior player and how it may differ to the one he had at Arsenal, where he was made captain and subsequently stripped of the honour.
“He is best if he takes his leadership by scoring and by performing,” Tuchel explained. “He is not the guy to give speeches, to lead by example and be half an hour early. He loves to be on time and this is not a problem, this is kind of his personality. He is in every training session, he is rarely injured. He is not a captain with words, but by what he does on the pitch, his actions, by scoring goals. Over the years, he has been available and hard-working on the pitch. He takes responsibility. I would not describe him as a leader that you think about in general like an Azpilicueta, who takes care of more than just his role on the field. He takes care of being in shape and he helps the team on the pitch. This is what we like.“
It would be wrong to forget what he did at Arsenal before things turned sour too. First, there was his very respectable record of 92 goals in 163 appearances. This included scoring both goals to beat Chelsea 2-1 in the 2020 FA Cup final.
For the most part during his spell in north London, Aubameyang came across as a very effervescent guy. Always laughing. Former head of recruitment Sven Mislintat once told reporters: “There is sunshine if he is around.” His rapport with Arteta was good at first too, which is why a new three-year contract was agreed in 2020. He was pretty popular among the players, many of whom were sad to see him go. A lot of the youngsters looked up to him — which Arteta felt made it all the more important he set a positive example.
By the end, even favourable staff thought Aubameyang had crossed a line, although some denied he caused a problem and felt it was more a reflection of how Arteta couldn’t handle him or know how to deal with a top-level player. There was talk inside the club about an attempted reconciliation, but both felt the trust in their relationship had been broken. Arteta had his reasons but so too did Aubameyang, who would have felt humiliated at the armband being taken away and being forced to train alone.
That is all in the past now, although it does serve as a warning for Chelsea should issues arise in the future. A trip to Milan to see a specialist and get a protective mask fitted has brought forward the chances of a debut.
His presence in the squad seems to be viewed positively — 20-year-old striker Armando Broja, who could have reason to be annoyed given Aubameyang threatens the chance of regular game time, said: “He is a great player. He has done a lot in his career so far and now he has come to Chelsea I can learn a lot from him.
“He has done it at Arsenal and Barcelona, so he is a good addition to the club and the team and he seems like a very good guy. I am excited to learn from him and a few things he has learned. It is good to have that competition in the team.”
Mateo Kovacic, speaking on Monday, summed it up, saying: “I can say that he will be a big addition for us because he’s a proper striker, a goalscorer. We haven’t had a goalscorer who scores 20-25 goals per season, which you obviously need to win the title.”
No one, not even Tuchel, can be sure this move is going to be a success. History is not on Aubameyang’s side. But whatever happens, it isn’t going to be dull.
(Other contributors: Raphael Honigstein, James McNicholas; Photo: Harriet Lander – Chelsea FC/Chelsea FC via Getty Images)