Gernot Rohr smiles when the subject of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and his recent £55.5m transfer to Arsenal is raised. The Nigeria manager has a long connection with the striker’s family having played against his father, coached his two half-brothers and worked with the man himself when Rohr was in charge of the Gabon national team, who reached the quarter-finals of the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations under his stewardship.
At the time, Aubameyang was plying his trade at Saint-Etienne in France. Did Rohr always know he would go on to become one of the world’s best centre-forwards?
“He was so fast that I believed he could have a very good career,” the 64-year-old recalls. “He is capable – I have seen it a lot of times at Dortmund. He makes you win games and these kind of players are very precious.”
Co-hosts Gabon were knocked out by Mali in the last eight of that tournament six years ago, with Aubameyang’s miss proving costly in the penalty shoot-out. The striker was guilty of opening up his body too early, allowing Mali goalkeeper Soumbeïla Diakite to make a routine save to his left.
“We had a team with very young players,” explains Rohr. “Especially players like Aubameyang and [André Biyogo] Poko, who went to Girondins de Bordeaux afterwards [and] did very well. Aubameyang is now much better in front of goal, finishing his actions. In the past he played on the wing and wasn’t often in front of the goal to score. But I already tried to play him more in the centre and he did very well. He scored three or four goals in the tournament [he was joint-top scorer with three]. Unfortunately, in the quarter-final he missed his penalty and we were eliminated. But I’ve forgotten it.”
If Rohr tentatively tried to play Aubameyang in a more central role, the player truly made the leap in his third season at Dortmund. He was initially deployed as a winger under Jurgen Klopp, before Thomas Tuchel transformed him into a free-scoring striker. Ciro Immobile and even Robert Lewandowski, who had recently moved to Bayern Munich, were soon forgotten.
“He is becoming a striker with efficiency, with realism, with a big influence on the game of his team because he goes to the spaces in behind the defenders,” says Rohr. “He has a lot of movement. He brought all that to the team of Dortmund. I think now this kind of playing [style] of Dortmund is a little bit similar to what you see in England: full power, playing all the time, big pressing and speed.”
Aubameyang’s move to Arsenal provided an unexpectedly positive end to the January transfer window for the club. The north Londoners may have to endure a second successive season without Champions League football in 2018/19, but Aubameyang evidently still found the proposition attractive. With Alexis Sanchez having departed for Manchester United, the Gabonese is the man tasked with supplying the firepower for Arsene Wenger’s men, as he did when he scored in a 5-1 rout of Everton on his debut. Arsenal fans will hope for more of the same in Sunday’s League Cup final against Manchester City.
“I believe that he chose the right club because Arsenal play very good football,” Rohr opines. “He has a coach who is French like him [Aubameyang was born in Laval, southwest of Paris] and he has partners who will provide him with very good passes. That’s what he needs.
“With Arsène Wenger he has a coach who can understand him, who knows him and who wanted to have him. It’s a good thing for him. I also think a bit about my player Alex Iwobi who is playing for Arsenal and for Nigeria. He’s happy to have Aubameyang because he’s different kind of footballer. Alex is complementary to Pierre-Emerick because Alex is going to dribble, going forward, back, on the side, everywhere… and Pierre-Emerick is a point in attack, the player who has to score, a goal-getter. So I think that Alex Iwobi and the other big players like Mesut Özil who will give good passes… it’s a wonderful transfer for Arsenal.”
Iwobi has struggled at times this season and the January arrival of Henrikh Mkhitaryan will intensify competition for places in the attacking line behind Aubameyang. Even for Nigeria Iwobi isn’t a guaranteed starter, with Victor Moses, Odion Ighalo, Moses Simon, Kelechi Iheanacho and Ahmed Musa among those fighting for the forward positions.
The Super Eagles were the first African team to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, topping a daunting group ahead of continental powerhouse Algeria, African champions Cameroon and Zambia. A young squad which also includes Leicester midfielder Wilfred Ndidi and Chelsea defender Ola Aina won four of their six games, with their only loss coming after Nigeria fielded an ineligible player against Algeria.
Former Chelsea stalwart John Obi Mikel is one of Nigeria’s few experienced players, with the average age of the squad just 24.9. Rohr doesn’t see such youthfulness as a drawback, however, although he does admit that a strong start will be vital this summer in a tough group alongside Croatia, Iceland and Argentina.
“It could be a disadvantage if you don’t start well in the first game and they become nervous,” says the German of his players. “But we have a good cocktail between the experience and the youthfulness of our players and I didn’t see any problems in the qualifiers. No, all was OK, but the World Cup is different. You never know what can happen. But I believe in my team. They are young; they are the youngest one of the 32 teams.”
The Nigerians will need a perfect cocktail when they take on Argentina and Lionel Messi in their final group game in Saint Petersburg. It’s the fifth time the West Africans will play the Albiceleste at the World Cup. In Brazil four years ago, Argentina edged Nigeria 3-2 in the group stage. The Super Eagles, however, will not be fazed by their esteemed opponents after beating the South Americans in a friendly in Krasnodar last November.
“We were lucky because they led 2-0 and we won 4-2 without Messi, but we didn’t have Victor Moses also,” says Rohr. “And Messi doesn’t play in defence. So, yes it was a nice victory and it’s perhaps now a disadvantage for us because they will not underestimate Nigeria.”
The country’s current crop is full of talent and Rohr’s side will be keen to leave their mark in Russia, but they have an awful lot to do if they’re to match Nigeria’s golden generation of the 1990s. A team containing Nwankwo Kanu, Jay-Jay Okocha, Taribo West and Celestine Babayaro enchanted audiences on their way to the gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, before defeating Spain 3-2 in a memorable match at the World Cup two years later.
“They had so many good players!” exclaims Rohr. “The difference is that our team now isn’t made of very, very big stars. We have one star: it’s Obi Mikel, of course. Perhaps we also have a second star, Victor Moses, but they are collective football players, not individuals. That is why, I think, we have a team about whom you cannot say this one player will make the difference, like Kanu or Okocha. We have a collective team.”
Whether teamwork can make Nigeria’s dream work in Russia remains to be seen, but this gifted set of youngsters will certainly be worth watching at the World Cup this summer.