Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang: A Fall from Grace

What a difference 18 months can make. After lifting the FA Cup aloft and signing a brand new contract with the club thought to be worth a whopping £300,000-a-week, who would have thought that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s Arsenal career would be over just 18 months later?

In that time, his form has nosedived, he’s been stripped of the captaincy, his relationship with the manager degraded so badly to the point where the manager refused to even allow him to train with the first team and 4 years to the day since he joined, he’s been bundled out the backdoor without a proper goodbye.

It’s a stunning fall from grace, one that has cost Arsenal well over £100m and one that will likely be resurrected come the end of the season, should the club fail to make it into the Champions League.

Aubameyang’s Arsenal career started exactly 4 years prior to his departure, on Deadline Day in 2018. The deal to bring Aubameyang to Arsenal was a strange one for many reasons.

First of all, the deal to bring the forward to the club meant that Chelsea needed to loan Michy Batshuayi to Borussia Dortmund to cover Aubameyang’s departure and Arsenal needed to sell Olivier Giroud to Chelsea to cover for Batshuayi’s absence, thus closing the loop with arguably one of the greatest announcement videos ever seen.

Secondly, Aubameyang was Arsenal’s second major striker arrival in 6 months, after the club dropped a whopping £46m on Alexandre Lacazette from Lyon.

The deal was confirmed and Arsenal began to figure out how they could accommodate two elite strikers into one team.

Aubameyang was Arsène Wenger’s final ever signing.

Aubameyang hit the ground running and picked up where he left off for Borussia Dortmund – scoring freely. As the UEFA registration rules had not been amended at this point, Aubameyang was unable to play for Arsenal in the Europa League, however, he did make 14 appearances in all other competitions, ending the campaign an unbelievable 10 goals. A fitting return for the man wearing the number of Thierry Henry.

Then, things started to change.

Arsène Wenger stepped down after 22 years at the helm and Unai Emery was eventually brought in as a replacement.

This is significant because Wenger’s departure meant a change at the club for the first time in over two decades. Whatever stability new players had brought into with Wenger, was now stripped away from them. New technical and executive staff meant that things would be done very differently.

Emery’s arrival also meant a change in tactical approach. While Wenger leaned heavily onto the individual brilliance of the players and opted for fast-paced, free-flowing, attacking football, Emer’s emphasis was built more on pragmatism, hard work and an increase in defensive duties.

For many, it seemed as though Arsenal’s shiny new toy would be broken before they even got to fully enjoy him.

But to everyone’s utter astonishment, Aubameyang flourished in Emery’s system. Though he was often shunted out wide in order to accommodate Lacazette, Aubameyang never waivered and his form carried Arsenal for much of the season.

Aubameyang formed an endearing bromance with Alexandre Lacazette.

The Gabon forward was forming a wonderful onfield and offfield bromance with Lacazette and the two worked wonders, especially with an effective creator such as Mesut Özil or Aaron Ramsey behind them.

In Emery’s first season, Aubameyang presided over some spectacular individual performances, including the 4-2 derby win over Tottenham, a Europa League semi-final hat-trick over Valencia at the Mestalla Stadium and finished joint top for the Golden Boot along with Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah at Liverpool.

But it wasn’t all champagne and roses for the club. A very poor run of form in the final stretch of the season mean that Arsenal missed out on Champions League qualification through the league and a humbling defeat against rivals Chelsea in the Europa League final meant that Arsenal were once again confined to the Europa League for the following season.

Aubameyang’s second full season with the club brought more ups and downs. The signing of Nicolas Pépé meant that Arsenal boasted an attack worth £220m. Aubameyang, Pépé, Lacazette and Özil wasn’t just expensive, it was downright frightening and the prospect of all four leading the line for Arsenal was far too enticing for Arsenal fans.

But things soon took a downward spiral.

Aubameyang with Lacazette and Nicolas Pépé.

Emery fell out majorly with Özil and the German playmaker was reduced to a bit-part player, rarely trotting out for the club and Pépé (not Emery’s preferred signing) failed to capture the imagination in the way that fans had hoped.

Things got even worse for the club when Granit Xhaka, club captain, stormed off the field amidst a tirade of boos from the Arsenal fans, ripping off the captain’s armband and his shirt and disappearing down the tunnel.

As Emery had selected his captains on the basis of a squad vote, Aubameyang was the next in line for the armband after Xhaka was stripped of it.

This led to the first real divide in the fanbase over Aubameyang.

For many, his seniority, goalscoring record and high performances meant that Aubameyang was the perfect substitute after Xhaka and would be a new guiding star for the youngsters to follow.

Others took a more pessimistic approach. While Aubameyang’s abilities on the field were undeniable, his attitude wasn’t quite what you would expect from an Arsenal captain. He was flashy, didn’t seem to take things too seriously and was often shown in Arsenal YouTube videos to be a bit too much of a free spirit to really take on the mantle of the armband. Aubameyang was now captain nd it was up to him to prove people right or wrong.

Whether or not Aubameyang would have made an excellent Emery captain or not, people never really found out as Emery was promptly dismissed.

Aubameyang took the captaincy from Granit Xhaka.

Though Freddie Ljungberg was only Arsenal manager for a short period of time, Aubameyang was a very useful player under the former-Gunner, scoring twice against Norwich City at Carrow Road to rescue a draw and scoring as Arsenal battered West Ham at home too.

Soon after, Mikel Arteta was appointed. Including Ljungberg, this was now Aubameyang’s 4th manager in the space of 18 months. Whatever stability Aubameyang and his family had moved to Arsenal for had long since evaporated.

And yet, Aubameyang continued to score goals. No matter where Aubameyang played him, he was constantly popping up with a goal or 2 and he was someone Arteta relied on for leadership.

Aubameyang was a constant source of help for the youngsters in the team and the way he picked himself up after disappointment was masterful tow catch, no more so than when he was able to put the disappointment of a late miss against Olympiacos behind him.

After the COVID-19 pandemic hit, football soon resumed, but there was a new concern.

Aubameyang’s contract would be entering the final year in the summer and Arsenal needed to renew it. This is a tale as old as time for Arsenal fans, given that both Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez before him had both found themselves in similar situations.

Had Arsenal still been under Emery, it’s unlikely that Aubameyang would have stayed much longer, but after a record-extending 14th FA Cup win (Aubameyang’s first trophy with the club) and the difference in playstyle under Arteta, not to mention Aubameyang’s superb relationship with the Spaniard, the captain soon committed himself to a new contract.

Happier times for Aubameyang and for Arsenal.

The contract contained an eye-watering £300,000-a-week wage and was for 3 more years. Arsenal had had the option to extend his deal by a further year with his old contract, but both Aubameyang and his family wanted more security in the deal and a raise in his weekly wages, which Arsenal were only too happy to oblige to.

While Arsenal fans jumped for joy, there was still a snag. The club had already had their fingers burned by a high-earner suddenly dropping off in form, and while Aubameyang was a slightly different case in that he was captain, the sort of wage he was on was still a cause for concern.

Whatever fears fans had were soon assuaged as Arsenal won the Community Shield, with Aubameyang scoring just before the extension as announced and beginning the season with an impressive return, including a penalty to give Arsenal their first win at Old Trafford since 2006.

From there, things started to turn bad.

Arsenal’s form took an utter nosedive. It wasn’t exclusive just to Aubameyang, but his form was worrying and Arsenal needed players stepping up to the plate.

With Mesut Özil exiled, Willian failing to live up to expectations and the general lack of confidence ebbing throughout the team, Aubameyang’s form majorly dipped.

Aubameyang’s form has been in freefall for a while now.

His situation was being aided or perhaps hindered by Mikel Arteta. Keen to see his captain return to the dizzying heights of yesteryear, Arteta refused to withdraw Aubameyang from any matches, regardless of how well he was playing, after all, what sort of look would that be if he dropped or swapped out his captain?

Soon, the decision was made for him.

Though Arsenal’s form took a sharp uptake with the introduction of young Emile Smith Rowe, Aubameyang failed to keep up with the growing trend. After contracting both malaria and COVID-19 in as many weeks, the forward was dropped from the team for disciplinary reasons.

The reasons were soon revealed to be that he had turned up late for Arsenal’s north London derby clash with Tottenham – a situation which immediately caused Arteta to drop him to the bench.

Arsenal fans cursing the Spaniard’s name for daring to drop the captain were soon made to eat their words as Arsenal edged out 2-1 victors.

Aubameyang was back in the team the following week, but now there were question marks. Aubameyang stood before the fans as a man who had now been publicly taken to task by his manager and any sniff of bad behaviour would not go unnoticed.

A disappointing end to the season for the club (they finished 8th), meant that Arsenal needed to right some wrongs the following season.

This season, Aubameyang has been largely unproductive. Though a hat-trick in the League Cup 2nd round tie with West Brom was a welcome addition to his tally, but ultimately, it counted for very little.

It’s not been a happy campaign this season for Aubameyang.

Finally, things came to a head in December.

After months of poor onfield performance, was finally dropped to the bench. He struggled to get back into the starting eleven, but soon, he didn’t even make the bench.

After another late return, this time coupled with a COVID breach, Arteta had had enough and stripped Aubameyang of the captaincy.

It looked like the end of Aubameyang’s Arsenal career, even then. Arteta is not famed for being especially merciful, but after months and months of poor performances and repeated behavioural breaches, this was the final straw.

Aubameyang never did make his way back into the Arsenal side, not even on the bench. The worst part for him, was that Arsenal began to look better. Gabriel Martinelli has taken his chance with both hands and has created a scenario that even if Aubameyang would have patched things up with Arteta, there would be no chance he could displace him.

Barely 6 weeks after losing the armband, Aubameyang was bundled out of the club through the back door, his contract terminated, the manager happy to see the back of him and a new challenge.

Aubameyang signed for Barcelona exactly 4 years to the day that he left Arsenal and is now seen by fans as “someone else’s problem”.

The situation is not ideal.

For Aubameyang, he cannot say goodbye to the fanbase which has been very good to him, or the stadium that was his home. His family have to move at the last second and he wasn’t even given the chance to say goodbye to his teammates.

For Arsenal, Aubameyang became the 7th player in 4 years to have their contract ripped up. But for the club, the positives outweigh the negatives. While Aubameyang was paid around £7m to say goodbye, the club now rid themselves of his influence and they also save themselves from his astronomical wages. That Aubameyang has spoken of Arteta’s treatment of him and that the footage of that will almost certainly be on display for everyone to see in the anticipated All or Nothing: Arsenal documentary from Amazon, will be small fry to the club after that and perhaps speaks to just how badly Arsenal wanted him gone from the team.

It is perhaps unfortunate for Aubameyang, that he was being managed by a former Arsenal captain, a captain who is generally considered by Arsenal fans to be one of the best the club has had in a very long time.

For Arteta, he was an exemplary captain, who played with pride, led by example, never finished outside of the top 4 and had the medals (albeit only FA Cup and Community Shield ones) to back up his wearing of the armband. Arteta also had an ever more impressive vice-captain in Per Meterseacker.

Mikel Arteta was arguably one of the best captains Arsenal have had in a while.

This is perhaps not the best person to be taking the captain’s duties lightly. In fact, Aubameyang’s standards with the armband had slipped so dramatically that the club even had to replace the Captain’s Notes section in the official matchday programme as Aubameyang would often not complete his thoughts on time.

There is also the undeniable issue that Aubameyang has run afoul of timekeeping rules before. When at Borussia Dortmund, manager Thomas Tuchel was often required to inform Aubameyang that meetings started 15 minutes later than the official start time, just to ensure that he would be there at the same time as the rest of the team.

His behaviour at Dortmund wasn’t exactly stellar post-Tuchel either. After failing to get the move he asked for in the summer of 2017, Aubameyang began to start acting out and while the exact nature of his actions are not known, he was suspended by the club for his actions.

From the outside, it’s not surprising to see that he ran into similar issues in north London.

But for those who have watched Aubameyang for the past 4 years, it is nearly impossible to see how this has come about.

Of course, the public only knows what the club tells them. Given that the club has a myriad of contacts with journalists, it is perhaps natural to think that the club will find it easier to get their version of the story out into the public eye, whereas Aubameyang may struggle unless he makes a public statement, something any agent, publicist or manager would tell him is unwise.

Aubameyang now begins a new chapter in Barcelona.

However, it is worth considering Arteta’s part in all of this.

This is now the third player in three years that Arteta has fallen out with. Mattéo Guendouzi was the first, with Mesut Özil soon meeting the same treatment (though, this seems to have been more with the club, than the manager) and now Aubameyang.

Arteta’s uncompromising nature is both a force for bad and good. For many, seems to hint that Arteta is the one with the issue, not the players. That he will not compromise means that players are out in the cold unable to come back in to the fold if they run afoul of Arteta’s non-negotiables.

For others, this is the kick that the club has needed for a while. For too long, the players have been protected by the manager and have been allowed to escape punishments for a while now. The last time Arsenal showed much backbone in a disciplinary issue, was when Alexis Sánchez was benched for an away trip to Liverpool after a bust-up in training with Laurent Koscielny. Sánchez still came on as a substitute.

It’s a sorry end to what had been a mostly positive chapter in the club’s history. Aubameyang was a world-class forward, arguably the best the club have had since Robin van Persie’s departure, a joy to watch on the field and off it and someone who brought a smile to the face of everyone who watched him play, but in the end, his immature nature, poor form and lack of regard for the armband meant that it only ended one way.

Aubameyang is the second player to have been offered £300,000-a-week+ by the club and is the second player who’s performances have not matched the salary. While the Aubameyang tale is likely very unique, it is nevertheless a cautionary one for Arsenal for the future.

While Aubameyang finally gets to live out his lifelong dream of strutting his stuff in La Liga, Arsenal will now need to look at who replaces him. Regardless of what happens next, this brings an end to a very sticky chapter, one with a very unpleasant ending for everyone involved, with a lot of money spent and bridges irrevocably burned.

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