It came as little surprise when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was included in Gabon’s final squad for the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations on Tuesday, per BBC’s Oluwashina Okeleji.
The reigning African Footballer of the year, he was never going to miss the tournament hosted by his home country. The 27-year-old has a score to settle in AFCON, as he missed the decisive penalty in a quarter-final shootout defeat to Mali in 2012, when Gabon co-organised the competition with Equatorial Guinea.
As the team captain and, arguably, the biggest star from the African continent in world football, participating in the tournament is a matter of honour for the Borussia Dortmund striker.
Still, his club head coach Thomas Tuchel would likely have preferred Aubameyang did not have to play international football early in 2017. Dortmund’s No. 17 is close to being irreplaceable, especially in the sumptuous form he has shown throughout the first half of the season.
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Aubameyang was inconsolable when he missed the decisive penalty in the 2012 AFCON quarter-finals.
Twenty goals in 22 matches across all competitions, including 16 in only 15 Bundesliga games, speak for themselves. He has been on fire and it is hard to imagine how the Black and Yellows would be positioned in the league table and in the Champions League had Aubameyang not served as a lifeline over the last few months.
With AFCON beginning on January 14 and the group stage stretching over eight days, the star attacker could return in time for Dortmund’s second competitive match of the new year on January 29 at FSV Mainz 05, missing only an away trip to Werder Bremen.
However, seeing as Gabon are grouped with Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Guinea-Bissau, they have every chance of advancing to the knockout stage, starting on January 28. As a worst-case scenario for Dortmund, Aubameyang could miss the first three Bundesliga matches and the DFB-Pokal round-of-16 tie with Hertha BSC, scheduled three days after the AFCON final.
Three league matches without Aubameyang does not sound like all that much, but the Black and Yellows have left themselves next to no margin for error in the Bundesliga.
Just sixth in the table, they are already looking at third place as the only realistic target for the second half of the season. Twelve points to Bayern Munich and nine to RB Leipzig seem an insurmountable deficit in light of Dortmund’s lack of consistency so far this season.
In surprise teams Hertha, Eintracht Frankfurt and TSG Hoffenheim, the Ruhr side has ample competition for the final direct Champions League spot, especially considering those three teams do not have to worry about navigating a European campaign as well as the Bundesliga.
In that regard, every game Aubameyang misses while on international duty will hurt his club side dearly. It is one more worry for Tuchel, who has seen his squad depleted by injuries and form crises throughout the season so far.
How can he best replace his star striker early in 2017? Here, Bleacher Report takes a closer look at his options.
The easiest solution would be to slot in back-up forward Adrian Ramos for Aubameyang. The Colombian’s statistics look unimpressive since he moved to the Westfalenstadion in 2014, with 19 goals in 79 appearances across competitions.
However, a deeper analysis reveals those numbers do not do him justice. For starters, he is one of the most-used substitutes for Dortmund, making a whopping 51 of his appearances off the bench.
In terms of his playing time in minutes spent on the pitch, the 30-year-old has played roughly one Bundesliga season’s worth of games for the club, making his scoring statistics look far more favourable. Additionally, Ramos is often relegated to a role on the wing due to the imposing presence of Aubameyang in the middle.
When playing as a true No. 9 under Tuchel, Ramos has produced fairly well, scoring 12 and assisting another five goals in just over 20 matches’ worth of playing time—contributing to a goal roughly every 110 minutes.
Martin Meissner/Associated Press
When used as a striker, Ramos has been more than solid for Dortmund under Tuchel.
Extrapolate those numbers over the course of a full Bundesliga season, and he would end up with a combined 27 goals and assists, more than solid numbers even for a Dortmund striker.
Of course, one has to take into account that Ramos does some of his damage against tiring defenders late in games, or when those matches are already won for his side, but his scoring statistics are good for a back-up striker.
Obviously, he is nowhere near as good as Aubameyang, but he is good enough to be trusted in the Gabonese’s absence.
However, Ramos might not be at the club by the time AFCON kicks off. Rumours about a switch to the Chinese Super League have persisted for the better part of a year now, with German tabloid Bild (link in German) reporting on Tuesday that Beijing Guoan are interested in his services.
It would not be too surprising to see Ramos, who will turn 31 on January 22, push for a move to China, seeing as it would likely be the last big-money contract of his career. He is no Carlos Tevez, but Bild report he could still double his wages to a whopping €6 million per year with a transfer.
Of course, Dortmund could deny him a move for the time being, with Aubameyang away on international duty and no other natural striker in the squad, but keeping a potentially disgruntled player who seems to need confidence to function more than others may not be the best strategy.
A January Signing
Tuchel publicly denied having any transfer wishes for the January window in a press conference ahead of a Bundesliga match against FC Augsburg, per local paper Ruhr Nachrichten on Twitter (link in German).
Chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke ruled out new signings in an interview with local radio station Radio 91.2 (link in German) earlier in December, too.
Still, if the club were to jump on an offer for Ramos in January, there would be a distinct need and the necessary funds for a replacement.
KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/Getty Images
Smolov-to-Dortmund talk has been quiet, but he could still make a lot of sense as a transfer target.
Links with FC Krasnodar’s Fedor Smolov have quietened down considerably of late, but, as this writer detailed in an earlier piece, he could be an intriguing fit for Dortmund.
The 26-year-old offers a good mixture of technical and physical qualities and could play with Aubameyang, something that never quite worked out too well with Ramos. Tuchel has mostly unsuccessfully tried to play both of his strikers together, with the Colombian more of a target man allowing the Gabonese more freedom.
If not Smolov, Dortmund would likely have another option in mind in case they sell Ramos. Whether he could start right away would be another story, of course.
Should Ramos be sold or Tuchel not wish to start the 30-year-old for whatever reason, Dortmund could also move an attacking midfielder or winger to the position up front.
Marco Reus, Emre Mor, Mario Gotze and Ousmane Dembele all have some level of experience playing at the top of the formation, even though Tuchel has been reluctant to experiment with a false nine; thanks to the imperious form of Aubameyang in the 18 months the head coach has spent at the Westfalenstadion, he did not need to, either.
The best fit of a non-natural striker playing up front, however, would be Andre Schurrle. The 26-year-old is more physical than his aforementioned team-mates and could conceivably hold up against central defenders.
The 2014 FIFA World Cup winner came up as a forward in Mainz’s academy, where he was Tuchel’s captain in the under-19 team. He has some experience playing in central attacking roles from his days with Mainz and Bayer Leverkusen—where he often played as a secondary striker—and even played some matches up front for Jose Mourinho at Chelsea.
His best performances during a disappointing 18-month spell with VfL Wolfsburg came as a striker, too. Schurrle scored only 13 and assisted a further 10 goals in 63 matches across all competitions for the Wolves, but six goals and two assists came in only 10 matches up front.
Playing Schurrle up front could make some sense for Dortmund.
As an ancillary effect, using the 26-year-old in that role would make it easier to understand just why Dortmund felt the need to pay a club-record €30 million for his services, seeing as he always seemed more of a luxury transfer for the left-winger position.
Playing a non-traditional player such as Schurrle up front would allow the team a lot of fluidity in their attacking play, as he and wingers Reus and Dembele would form an unpredictable attacking trident.
Schurrle is a strong finisher and, while not quite as lightning-fast as Aubameyang, quicker than most defenders, allowing him to do some of the things the Gabonese does for Dortmund.
All in all, Tuchel has enough options at his disposal that Aubameyang’s international duty will not serve as an excuse for any mishaps to start 2017. Whether it is Ramos, Schurrle or an unidentified new signing, Dortmund should be able to absorb the hit even if Gabon make a deep run at AFCON.
Performance data via Transfermarkt.com
Lars Pollmann also writes for The Yellow Wall. You can follow him on Twitter.