Scriptwriters are capable of far greater works than the narratives held within a football match. But even the most basic Hollywood moments still move the soul. And with time running out for Arsenal in their latest chance to garner meaning from eight months of tedium, we thought we had it.
A leader rose high above three foes: one who had been the focus of our gazes for 78 minutes, especially so in the myriad of scenes where he was conspicuously absent. Breathless yet willing, Pierre Emerick Aubameyang suspended himself in the air long enough to meet Hector Bellerin’s hopeful cross. The contact from a turning head on a strained neck was as pure as it could have been, sending the ball towards goal as those consuming the events in north London prepared to burst with emotion at a finale that may not have been forthcoming but felt inevitable due to the whims of sporting heroism.
But there was no rippling of the net, only an agonising bounce off the post. No goal to tie the scores to put Arsenal ahead on away goals. No redemption for a leading man who spent much of this match and this season with the air of an understudy. And as the final whistle blew on 0-0 and Villareal celebrated wildly with their hard-fought draw putting them into their first Europa League final, this was yet another unhappy ending at the Emirates Stadium.
It was an ending Aubameyang had to watch. The header off the post - his third attempt at goal - was his last action before being replaced by Alexandre Lacazette. He looked as frustrated as you’d expect him to be. His team desperately needed a goal and, though he tried, their chances of achieving it were, eventually, better without him.
Was this the “biggest” game of his Arsenal career? Hard to say given it is a descriptor that can probably be applied to previous games in retrospect. His brace in 2020’s FA Cup Final was not short of context: his and Arteta’s first trophies as captain and coach respectively. Then there’s the hat-trick against Valencia in this exact stage of 2018/19’s Europa League. Both were moments he needed to stand tall, and did just that.
But it felt the biggest with regards to his legacy at the club. More so with some Arsenal fans than others, no doubt. And it was hard not to shake the feeling that a team and a player who looked on the cusp of better days at the end of last season are irrevocably bound by each other’s inertia. There will be no European football next season and potentially their lowest finish since they placed 10th in the Premier League’s maiden 1992/93 season.
The gravity of this night was not lost on Aubameyang. His utterances in the lead-up were far from a rallying cry of a leader but humble admissions from a player that is work this season has not been up to scratch. The antithesis of a boxer ahead of fight night - here was a star accepting his shortcomings.
How could he not? Performances since signing a bumper three-year deal worth £55million in September have lacked a usual zest, in part because of those around him, though the man himself was not shirking blame, admitting he feels partly responsible for the situation Arsenal are in.
Three weeks on the sideline with malaria haven’t helped, with 4kg lost offset by the burden he placed upon himself to take his side to the Europa League final, even at what he gauged was 90 percent capacity. Left out of the 2-1 defeat in the first leg, his return to the starting XI was a boost, without question.
The first half felt like a microcosm of his campaign: isolated, peripheral, seemingly disinterested, and then flashes of real quality. He made just seven touches in the opening 45 minutes plus the three added on, yet instigated two moments that struck fear into yellow shirts. A reaction volley with the outside of his right foot clipped the far post, before a typical cut in and swipe from the right was almost bundled into his own goal by goalkeeper Gerónimo Rulli. Those were the only moments of note in an otherwise drab opening stanza.
More urgency in the second half from the hosts opened up spaces in both halves. Still, Aubameyang roamed without purpose, searching for something he hoped rather than expected, like a reveler roaming the streets desperate for that one joint that might still be open to ensure the night does not to have to end.
To the 31-year-old’s credit, he found one when those around him had given up. That last effort off the post came at the end of a counter-attack where only he and Bellerin showed any physical resilience to turn defence into attack as quickly as possible.
Fewer revolutions on the header and maybe it’s in, even off the post. And maybe we, Arsenal and Aubameyang get the lazy conclusion this caper seems to give us every other week.
Alas, it was not to be. And while the woe is on Arsenal as an entity and Arteta as a manager with serious questions to answer on his own work, there is no doubt the strain was carried more by the captain and star who was supposed to take them to greater heights. Certainly far away from this kind of low.