The story goes that when Arsene Wenger met fellow Frenchman Thierry Henry on a flight from Italy to Paris in 1999, he told the young attacker: “You’re wasting your time on the wing. You’re a No.9.”
Wenger had known Henry from his time at Monaco, giving him his debut as a 17-year-old before being fired as manager less than three weeks later. Henry’s professional bow had come on the wing, with Wenger confident that his pace and skill would give opposition full-backs nightmares.
Henry was kept on the flank by subsequent Monaco coaches and then, in one uninspiring season at Juventus, was even used as a wing-back by Carlo Ancelotti, unsurprisingly offering limited returns before he was allowed leave for Arsenal just eight months after moving to Italy.
He was 21 when he arrived at the Emirates and desperate to play as a winger once more. Wenger had other ideas, though, pushing him into a central striking position as he looked to replace the void left by Nicolas Anelka up front.
After a slow start, Henry admitted that he needed to “rediscover the scoring instinct, that automatic reaction in front of goal”. His first eight games came and went with no goals, as he either started out wide or from the bench.
He finally got off the mark on September 18, 1999, netting the winner at Southampton after being brought on as a substitute, but, after 17 games in all competitions, he had just two goals to his name.
In November, Wenger decided to start Henry alongside Dennis Bergkamp in a front two and, despite going down early against Derby County, the Frenchman finally showed his ability as a striker with two goals to ensure victory.
After the game, Wenger declared Henry’s contribution as “the start, I hope, of the conversion [into a centre-forward]”. Henry, though, didn’t just become a centre-forward; he became one of the most complete strikers in world football.
He netted 24 times in Arsenal’s following 30 games. The next season, he scored 22 in all competitions, and then broke the 30-goal mark in each of the next five campaigns.
In total, Henry scored 226 goals in all competitions for the Gunners, helping them to two league titles and two FA Cups, and is the club’s all-time record goalscorer. Not bad for a winger-turned-striker.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s arrival at Arsenal comes much further along in his career than Henry’s. The Gabon international turned 28 in June, but went through a similar transition to Henry earlier in his career.
Aubameyang is blessed with outstanding pace, which was utilised out wide in his early days in the Bundesliga by Jurgen Klopp at Borussia Dortmund, in support of Robert Lewandowski. He finished his first season in the Bundesliga with 13 goals, but the jury was still out on him, as many of his strikes had come against the league’s lesser lights like Eintracht Frankfurt and Augsburg.
Critics pointed to his poor strike-rate in Europe, where Aubameyang found the net just once in nine Champions League appearances. When Klopp needed a new striker to replace Bayern Munich-bound Lewandowski, he brought in Ciro Immobile and Adrian Ramos. Aubameyang was still being deployed as a right-winger.
With Dortmund struggling in the league, having lost seven of their opening 10 games, Klopp was forced to change his approach. He shifted ‘Auba’ up top for the last 15 games of the season, salvaging something from a lost campaign to reach the DFB Pokal final and finish in the Europa League spots.
Thomas Tuchel replaced Klopp and continued Aubameyang’s development as a striker. The new manager preferred to keep the ball at Aubameyang’s feet rather than have him run after it down the flanks, becoming a more rounded forward capable of holding up the ball and bringing team-mates into play. He even scored more than ever before, finishing second to Lewandowski in the race for the top scorer trophy with 25 Bundesliga goals.
Aubameyang performed even better last season, with 31 league goals, beating Lewandowski to the Torjagerkanone as the league’s highest scorer. Despite a desire to leave Dortmund, goals continued to come this season, with 13 goals in 15 league appearances and four more in the Champions League.
Having proven himself as one of the world’s best goalscorers in the Bundesliga, Aubameyang has everything to succeed in the Premier League with Arsenal. Wenger has been looking for an heir to Henry since the Frenchman left the club over a decade ago, and now has finally found the complete forward he needed.
When Henry retired from football in 2014 to become a pundit, Arsenal’s official website compiled a number of quotes from and about the Frenchman. Wenger glowed about his former forward: “What makes him special? He has a mixture of physical talent and technical ability, as well as remarkable intelligence and above all a great passion for the game.”
Henry’s France team-mate Lilian Thuram described him as “a wizard with his feet and is blessed with a gift for scoring goals. His best quality is his speed while the ball is at his feet. He may be the fastest man ever to lace up a football boot. No defender in the world can keep up with him.”
It would not be a surprise to hear any of the same sentiments expressed about Arsenal’s newest signing. Aubameyang is one of the fastest players in the world, but also has amazing technical ability and physical talent.
Wenger has long been maligned for never having replaced the key members of ‘The Invincibles’ but he might just have found his new Henry.