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Chelsea’s Morata, Arsenal’s Aubameyang on borrowed time



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They are not striking similarities as much as superficial ones. Chelsea’s Alvaro Morata and Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang are forwards who signed last season for club-record fees in the same bracket, £58 million and £56m. Neither, despite his fee and pedigree, is guaranteed to be leading the line in a few weeks’ time. And there, arguably, the common denominators end.

Elsewhere, they represent opposites. Aubameyang was the short-term recruit, the statement signing meant to prove Arsenal’s pulling power and stave off decline. Morata, three years his junior, promised more longevity and seemed to come with a greater resale value. Yet Aubameyang had the record to justify the fee, a proven goal scorer accustomed to being a major club’s top striker. Morata represented more of an unknown quantity: he had not been the main man in the forward line for an entire season at Juventus or Real Madrid, and by the time Olivier Giroud was the FA Cup final striker, he was not at Chelsea either.

The Spaniard had never scored more than 15 goals in a top-flight campaign. The Gabonese has topped that tally six times, with a personal best of 31. He mustered 23 last season, spread across two clubs in a stop-start campaign that still showed his predatory streak. The difference between Arsenal and Chelsea’s front men is at its starkest in 2018. Aubameyang has underlined that he represents a guarantee of goals by scoring 10 goals in 14 Premier League games. Morata has one in the calendar year.

The Arsenal man has a ridiculously good conversion rate, of 31 percent, in the division in 2018; his Chelsea counterpart, at just 4 percent, has a ludicrously bad one. In a way, it underlines strengths and shortcomings. Aubameyang’s game is based around pace and he has been swift to make an impact, even if it may be dangerous to rely on one who has turned 29 to retain his speed. Morata is more of an all-round striker, perhaps boasting every attribute except one: the mentality. His lack of confidence has been apparent in 2018.
“Tidy finish, @AlvaroMorata,” Chelsea tweeted at Huddersfield on Saturday. The problem was that it came in the warm-up, not the match itself. Perhaps this weekend will afford a chance.

For much of the past 15 years, a meeting with the Gunners would have seemed an ideal opportunity for a Chelsea striker to open their account. Their forwards — Didier Drogba and Diego Costa in particular — used to torment Arsenal. Morata has had traumatic times against them. He feels a forward out of keeping with their recent past: perhaps more talented, but more fragile and less formidable.

His Chelsea career that can be summed up in two missed penalties against Arsenal; the first, in the shootout after last summer’s Community Shield, gave him a false start to his time at Stamford Bridge. The second, in the International Champions Cup this month, may have been why he was not on spot-kick duties at Huddersfield. Instead, Jorginho was allowed to register a debut goal.

One of the peculiarities of Morata’s time at the club has been that his most profitable relationship has been with a defender. Cesar Azpilicueta was his supplier in chief last season, though it may have boded better had he combined as well with another attacker. Aubameyang’s understanding with Henrikh Mkhitaryan, dating back to their days at Borussia Dortmund, is an alliance that should produce more goals.
And Aubameyang’s record suggests that, if all things are equal, he should prove more prolific than Morata this season. He has sustained form over a campaign and proved he can cope with the workload of leading the line for nine months.

And yet all things are not equal. Their private competition may rest in part on how much each plays and where. Morata will have to fend off another challenge from Giroud, the non-scoring World Cup winner, a man sacrificed by Arsenal after Aubameyang’s arrival but who suited Antonio Conte’s style of football — and perhaps ultimately Eden Hazard — better than Morata. Maurizio Sarri is less concerned with a “point of reference” than Conte in attack. As his reinvention of Dries Mertens at Napoli shows, he likes a false nine more than a target man. Perhaps Hazard will be charged with emulating Mertens and Morata will be rendered obsolete by stylistic change.

The greatest threat to Aubameyang comes from confused recruitment. He was bought one transfer window after Alexandre Lacazette arrived for Arsenal’s previous highest fee. The Bundesliga’s top scorer in 2016-17 ended Sunday’s defeat to Manchester City on the left wing to accommodate the Frenchman; it was an uneasy compromise also seen last season at a club with two hugely expensive strikers and who have only tended to play one out-and-out forward. It nevertheless feels a strange use of a player who scored 100 goals in his last 118 games at Dortmund.

If that goal-scoring record dictates he must play, there is nevertheless the odd but plausible scenario that Arsenal and Chelsea’s most expensive ever strikers, with a combined cost of £114m, will soon be out of position and out of the team respectively.