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Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang embraces Europa League pressure with OM: ‘People are crazy here, but I’m crazy too’

You wouldn’t move to Olympique de Marseille if you were looking for the quiet life, a sedate final stop en route to a leisurely retirement in the south of France. Ligue 1’s only European champion do not lack for expectations and, as recent managers Marcelino and Gennaro Gattuso can attest, failing to live up to them tends to bring swift repercussions. The pressure cooker of the Stade Velodrome, with an atmosphere that has quite literally taken the breath away from visitors on European nights, makes or breaks the best.

Had you been through the travails on and off the pitch that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has over the last three years, you might take one look at the “fire” of the Velodrome, take ten paces back, turn on your heels and sprint in the opposite direction. Then again, you are not Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

“People are crazy here … but I’m crazy too,” he told CBS Sports ahead of Marseille’s semifinal matchup against Atalanta in the Europa League on Thursday (catch coverage of the Europa League across Paramount+, CBS Sports Network and CBS Sports Golazo Network). “It’s a good mix.” 

That it certainly is. Aubameyang beams as he reflects on a move that has revitalized his career and brought the light back into one of the most effervescent figures in European football.  It could so easily have been quelled for good. Stripped of the Arsenal captaincy for one disciplinary breach too many in 2021, Aubameyang seemed to have at least landed on his feet at Barcelona. His form returned even if there were trying matters in his personal life, burglars breaking his jaw when they broke into his property in August. By then Aubameyang was also caught up in the summer of ‘levers’, financial machinations at the Nou Camp meaning that a player with 11 goals in 17 La Liga games was pushed out the door to make room for new arrivals.

At least his old Borussia Dortmund boss Thomas Tuchel was ready to trust in his talents, taking him back to London. Five days after Chelsea had committed $12.8 million to give their manager a veteran striker he trusted in, they sacked Tuchel. His successor Graham Potter never showed the same faith in Aubameyang while his employers ripped up the strategy of building around established stars, swelling their dressing room beyond capacity with whichever young stars they could lay their hands on. Aubameyang’s last two starts for Chelsea? Defeats to the rampant Arsenal he had left behind. It was all enough to knock anyone off course.

“I was just missing that hunger for a little time,” he says. “Obviously when I was at Chelsea I was not playing so much. Uou lose that a bit because you are sad about the situation.” 

Still, there was deeper for Aubameyang to fall. With one league goal to his name by the start of November, the 34-year-old was booed by the Velodrome when Gattuso hauled him off in a 0-0 draw with Lille.

“I knew when I came here that Marseille is the extremes, always. That’s a very good experience for me. I had to look at myself in the mirror and work more and more to bring back that light that is in me. We went through that. 

“When I saw people were whistling me a little bit, I was like ‘Damn, I have to change this,’ especially because my mom was at the stadium. I think I had to change something. I became more aggressive, hungrier. I had to find rhythm and that took a bit of time but when we arrived in December, I felt good and fit. I could be better and when they whistled me, that gave me more hunger to change the situation completely.” 

In the 29 games since the Velodrome whistled his name, Aubameyang has won their affections and then some. Those matches have brought 21 goals for the veteran striker, who has fired Marseille back towards upper mid-table in Ligue 1 and, crucially, a Europa League semifinal against Atalanta. With the caveat that he has faced more ferocious opposition in his stints in the Bundesliga and Premier League, Aubameyang is delivering numbers approximating the scourge of defenses in his heyday.

His 3.68 shots per 90 minutes in league play is his highest average since his final full season at Borussia Dortmund in 2016-17, his 0.59 non-penalty expected goals (npxG) a number comparable with his first two campaigns in Arsenal colors. Since he was booed off those numbers have skyrocketed further, over four shots per 90 putting him in the sort of elite striking bracket he occupied before anyone had even heard of Erling Haaland or Darwin Nunez. Since November 5, Aubameyang ranks 11th in Europe’s top five leagues for npxG per 90, 13th for shots and has more goals than Haaland, Victor Osimhen or Robert Lewandowski. All that and he has matched his season’s best assist tally of eight, set as a 23-year-old at Saint-Etienne. 

“Because I played with Barcelona,” he jokes.

The straight-line burst may not be what it was in his 20s but still he knows his way to goal, particularly when he is in that spot. You’ll know it before you watch the clip above of his equalizer against Ajax back in November, Aubameyang moving in from the left, gliding away from defenders who might as well not be there before striking the ball into the far post. 

You’ve seen it more times than you can remember: for Arsenal against Liverpool in the Community Shield, Fulham in the Premier League or a more long-range variant when Borussia Dortmund downed Tottenham. Something takes over for Aubameyang when he gets into that spot. Since the start of 2020-21, he has had shots in an inner left quadrant of the penalty area worth 17.9 xG. He has scored 23 goals but there is nothing that really feels streaky about that. It’s just the zone where Aubameyang heats up. 

Like Arjen Robben cutting in, every defender must know what he is going to do. That doesn’t mean they can stop him. 

“A lot of people know me for scoring that goal, from the left, right side, far post,” he reflects. I would describe myself like that too. I love to score that type of goal and I’ve been working a lot on this when I was at Arsenal. 

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Shots taken by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in league and European play since the start of the 2020-21 season. Note the sizeable smattering of green on the left side of the penalty area TruMedia

“When I’m there, I’m just focused on, ‘OK, I’m going to take the ball to score that goal. That’s what comes through my mind. I take the ball. I just go. I know that I have to dribble past one or two guys but before the action starts I know I’m already going to shoot, right foot, far post. The more you work it, the more it comes off. It’s just about repetition.”

Aubameyang has been particularly repetitive in the Europa League, his leading 10 goals this season propelling him four clear of Radamel Falcao to become the greatest scorer in the competition’s history. A beaten finalist in 2019, he still has unfinished business with this competition and the visit of Liverpool’s conquerors in the quarterfinal holds no fear for him.

“It’s going to be a tough game,” he says, “Hopefully one where we can be ready. They are going to come [at us] all over the pitch, they love to press. I’ve seen their videos, the star of this team is the team. We have to face that.

“We played Lens on Sunday, they played quite similar. For sure, Atalanta is a step ahead so we just have to improve our game. When it’s European nights in the Velodrome it’s a different mood.

“Will their intensity bring the best out of us and the Velodrome? I’m sure, 100 percent. We know what to expect from them, the fans are ready to put fire in the stadium and we will need it. Especially at this time of the season, you need a lot of energy and you need to take that energy from the people, the city, everywhere.”

It is that energy that seems to be powering Aubameyang, a player who once seemed to be trapped in a vortex of wrong moves now on an altogether more virtuous cycle: his goals bring the fire to Marseille fans, who in turn bring the best out of him, the charismatic superstar who so many supporters have fallen for over the last decade. This wasn’t the easy path — Aubameyang is among the few to have rejected the riches of the Saudi Arabian Pro League not once but twice — and that makes it all the more rewarding.

“I knew that it’s going to be a tough challenge but at the same time here you can live an amazing experience because of the city, the people. They live for football in the city, that’s what I was missing a bit. When I came I was sure it was going to be tough, I had been missing playing time but I was ready to go through this challenge, work a lot and try to bring joy to this club,” he said. 

That mission might already be accomplished, certainly, it will be if the season ends with Marseille lifting a European trophy. No less significantly, though, it seems that Aubameyang has brought joy to himself too. That is a feat as worthy of celebration as any of his many, many goals.

How to watch and odds

  • Date: Thursday, May 2 | Time: 3 p.m. ET
  • Location: Velodrome — Marseille, France
  • Live stream: Paramount+
  • Odds: OM +160; Draw +150; Atalanta +200

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