Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang Blossoms in Borussia

Aubameyang has lifted himself and Dortmund to dizzying heights

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It’s been a long and winding path for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. He made the mistake of signing for AC Milan just before the club’s dramatic decline in fortune, and spent four years on loan at various French clubs before signing permanently with Saint-Etienne. When he was acquired by Borussia Dortmund in 2013, everyone understood he was a project, an understudy to the amazing Robert Lewandowski. Pierre averaged a goal every other game his first two seasons, but fans grew restless last year. They expected more from him, especially after Lewandowski left for Munich.

They wondered: was he just a pretty good striker? Was this his level? It wasn’t until a new manager arrived that Pierre’s sky turned into a floor.

Yes, of course, Pierre runs quite fast. However, soccer is more than speed, or Djibril Cisse would have won more trophies and a golden boot or two. In his formative years, coaches often played Pierre on the wing for two reasons: (1) he could focus on beating a single defender and (2) did not have to play with his back to goal. In his first season with Borussia, he often played as a second striker off of Lewandowski, making runs into the channels and leaving the dirty work to the pole.

After Lewandowski left, Pierre’s consistently belted in goals but often in the form of what I call “the Chicharito zone.” Basically, Pierre possessed some nice finishing skills and basic movement off the ball, but his goals owed as much to defensive lapses as guile or skill.

This season, though, something changed. Aubameyang’s hold-up play has improved dramatically. Instead of running at three defenders and trying to carve out a shot, he lifts his head and passes to a teammate. The speed of his decision-making has also improved—he’s not afraid to try a first-time pass to a teammate. In other words, ideas are born in his head before a pass arrives. Anticipation has now turned a pacy-winger into a predatory forward.

The finishing has improved a bit, and he can now consistently chip the keeper in one-on-one situations. Most impressively, though, his movement is smarter. Before, he normally ran North-South and raced defenders to the far or near post. Now, though, he uses his pace to bait defenders into a sprint, and then slows down and hooks to the center of the 18 yard box. He’s knocked in 18 league goals already, and we’re not even in January.

With goals comes confidence. Pierre has added two new weapons to his arsenal: first, he’s scored some rocket strikes from outside the 18 yard box. Second, he’s using his movement to get on the end of crosses for goals like this:

As a Hugol fan, I may just have a soft spot for somersault goal celebrations. Still, watching Pierre blossom in his third year at Dortmund has given credence to that old saying: sometimes you do just have to wait for good things to happen.

Elliott writes about soccer at Futfanatico.com. He is the author of An Illustrated Guide to Soccer & Spanish, available on iTunes.