On Sunday, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang marked his return to the Arsenal side with an impressive hat-trick in the 4-2 win over Leeds United.
It was an emotional afternoon for the Gabon striker after a period of personal concern over the health of his mother. His performance went beyond the facts and figures that dominate the modern football landscape. With his focus back on his football, he wasted little time in reminding everyone what he is capable of.
Meanwhile, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has privately mourned the loss of his mother Elisabeth in recent weeks, with the media connecting his tetchy post-match interviews to the form of his team and their now apparent failed defence of their Premier League title. But in reality, there are more important things in life.
As a result of the pandemic, Jurgen Klopp was unable to return to Germany for his mother’s funeral. Only upon the news becoming public knowledge, did the trivialities of the game became obvious, as the human side of the individual was taken into account. However, despite the hectic scheduling of domestic and European commitments, the Liverpool manager is ready to carry on.
“I don’t need a break. Everyone knows privately it has been a tough time, but it wasn’t just last three weeks, it was longer before that. We always deal with it as a family 100%. Thanks for all the support, people tell me about it. I am very grateful for it, but they can think about other things, as nobody needs to worry about me,” Jürgen Klopp speaking to the press on Monday about the loss of his mother said.
The psychological side
These are difficult times for everyone, and while the players and managers competing at the very highest level perform to their professional best in an environmental bubble that allows the game to continue, they are not immune to the same stresses as the fans that now support them from home.
The modern game is built upon statistics. From the xG figures to the various percentages that dissect each and every passage of play into a mathematical formula, it is easy to disregard the human personality traits that ultimately decide how effectively an individual player or manager will perform on a day.
Of course, statistics provide a valuable service, but football scouts will continue to use a far more holistic approach than other sports when it comes to recommending potential signings.
Stats should play a key role in supporting judgement on an individual player. But they must be kept in context, as the pandemic has distorted these figures across the game through the psychological effects of the world we currently live in.
At the height of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s concern over the welfare of his mother, his stats would not have made great reading. But his mental health cannot be quantified by the software and systems that decide who has performed well. These are the times where the real ability of a manager is put to the test, and Mikel Arteta’s support for his captain was clearly vindicated on Sunday.
“Everybody around the club was giving me and my mum a lot of love. I received a lot of messages. I'm proud to be a part of this club. This means a lot to me. I'm a guy who always works hard, and tries to give my best for my family and my team. It's been a tough time, but it's time to get my smile back,” Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang said following Arsenal's 4-2 victory over Leeds United.
Mind games and a healthy mentality
Good mental health has never been more prevalent in society, and the social media abuse suffered by players in recent weeks has had an obviously detrimental effect on individuals. Now highlighted in the media more than ever before in a public call for stronger action to finally be taken, it is important to remember that these incidents are not necessarily forgotten during the course of 90 minutes.
Mind games remain a solid tactical plan for many managers, and Jose Mourinho is widely regarded as the professor when it comes to the dark arts of psychological distraction. Sir Alex Ferguson was an equally wily tactician on and off the field, but his subtle approach to upsetting his opposite number often remained under the radar until it was too late.
Gareth Bale has made headlines for the wrong reasons on his return to Tottenham Hotspur. Jose Mourinho’s recent attempts to influence public perception on the limited opportunities of the four-time UEFA Champions League winner have failed to have the desired effect.
However, Bale showed at the weekend in his cameo in the defeat to Manchester City that he still has something to offer this Spurs side. The only reaction he needs from Jose Mourinho is to give him the necessary game-time he desperately needs to regain his form and confidence.
The stats never tell the true story
Despite his lack of minutes on the field, Gareth Bale’s stats compare favourably against other players in Jose Mourinho’s side. He boasts a better goal return in all competitions than Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Erik Lamela. But these are the players who appear to be ahead of him in the natural order of preference to the Portuguese coach.
“I have to admit his post created the need to be addressed because there was a contradiction between the post and reality.....in relation to everything I try to be very private and keep everything indoors, but I felt that I need to address the situation. Probably the post was not even his responsibility...but the post was showing that training session great, so 'I'm ready' and it was totally wrong.” Jose Mourinho on Gareth Bale's Instagram post.
Injuries have had a psychological effect on Gareth Bale’s career. His performances for Spurs when opportunities have been presented to him have often suggested that he continues to play within himself with a fear of prompting another pull or strain if he pushes himself to maximum capacity.
These are the unquantifiable yet key aspects of the individual that the stats simply do not show.
Issues away from football have clearly left a deep impression on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Jurgen Klopp in recent weeks. But the relentless scrutiny of their professional lives leaves little room to consider how these different pressures affect them personally and how the imbalance of one directly correlates with the other.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is a proven striker who has scored consistently in Ligue 1, the Bundesliga and now in the English Premier League. Although he turns 32 later this year, he remains a valuable and experienced figure who will play an important role in helping Mikel Arteta nurture the talented young players that he is committed to fast-tracking through to the senior team at the Emirates Stadium.
Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe, Eddie Nketiah, Reiss Nelson, Gabriel Martinelli and on-loan Martin Odegaard are amongst the talented group of young players who are quickly defining Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal side. However, youth comes with an inevitable vulnerability despite a fearless approach, and even Mikel Arteta himself is at a formative stage of his managerial career.
A new era at Arsenal
For Mikel Arteta to keep his striker smiling will be crucial to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang making a positive impression as the manager builds a team in his vision, with his psychological support off the field being as valuable as those supporting him in his attacking role on it.
A hat-trick is an impressive return by any striker at this level. But the performance of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on Sunday will be remembered for more than the stats associated with it.
The club captain is happy once again, and Arsenal are a much better team for it.