The Rise & Fall of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
It’s difficult to believe how much water has passed under the bridge since Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, grinning from ear to ear in his ripped jeans and ‘PEA14’ chain stepped out against the backdrop of a fan-less, lifeless Emirates to announce his new contract at the back end of 2020. His vibrance and positivity was an antidote to the soulless ennui of Project Restart - it had finally happened. Pierre was here to stay.
The ink had just dried on a new, £55m 3-year commitment to Arsenal. Fans were overjoyed, thumbnails & copy on Arsenal’s official channels promoted not so subtle comparisons to Thierry Henry and debates online whirred with words like ‘legacy’ and ‘legend’. Indeed, though Aubameyang himself radiates humility, Ian Wright gave a socially distanced yet spirited assessment of his time thus far at the club: “For me right now, you’re legendary”.
It was hard to argue. Aubameyang was basking in the glow of an FA Cup winning campaign as Arsenal’s captain and talisman, with 2 goals in the Semi-Final against Manchester City and 2 more in the final, dispatching Frank Lampard’s Chelsea with deft, nonchalant yet ruthless quality.
In many ways, Aubameyang’s Arsenal career is a tale of two halves. Arriving with a point to prove following a souring relationship with Borussia Dortmund, a shared golden boot winning campaign in his first full season more than endeared him to the Arsenal faithful as the Emery era burst into life before unceremoniously screeching to a halt. The hot streak of 0.7 goals per start pre-contract became 0.45 post-contract, and other key metrics fell away too. Even his trademark front-flip goal celebration flickered and died.
So was the famous number 14 shirt just too heavy? Aubameyang, despite his flamboyance & poaching prowess never struck as someone whose confidence was unshakeable. Or is this the opposite, a story of someone who perhaps got too comfortable?
Arsène Wenger signed a then 28 year old Aubameyang for a club record fee in 2018, in many ways to replace the outgoing Alexis Sanchez. Spells flitting around France on loan had seen him settle at St Etienne, where a Team of the Season-worthy turn in 2013 alongside the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimović had cemented his rising star status in mainland Europe. Jürgen Klopp’s Dortmund swooped.
When Arsène made the call to Hans-Joachim Watzke, Dortmund’s CEO in January 2018, Le Proffeseur knew what he was enquiring about - what was to be his last major acquisition was no minor goal threat. With 31 goals in 32 Bundesliga games in the previous season, Arsenal were signing one of Europe’s top strikers and fans were delighted - but with the arrival of Alexandre Lacazette from Lyon at great expense in the previous window, many were left scratching their heads - why now?
For a while, it worked. Though there never felt like a moment of true synergy systemically, Aubameyang and Lacazette’s partnership, on and off the field, brought Arsenal a lot of joy in that period - but the short-termism of Aubameyang’s signing couldn’t cover all sins, and they finished 12 points behind Liverpool in 4th.
Arsenal’s struggles didn’t end there. Wenger’s departure that summer gave way to a new structure, and a more focused form of contact-led short term thinking, aimed at returning Arsenal to their consistent top 4 finishes followed. Stephan Lichsteiner, Sokratis Papastathopolous & David Luiz et al arrived, but Unai Emery’s protagonists grew misguided, weak-minded and disorganised. A frustrated Granit Xhaka’s outburst in a draw with Crystal Palace in October 2019 led to a dressing room vote - and Aubameyang was to be captain.
Leaders take many different shapes - but Aubameyang was certainly not a traditional one by English league standards. Critics noted the lack of appearances in media inquests after poor results. It’s also fair to say Auba lacks a traditional leader’s serious demeanour and perhaps a perceived razor focus. No problem while the goals rained. He could lead by example.
Arteta’s arrival in December of 2019 signalled a changing of the guard and a change in policy. He spoke widely, from day one, of changing the culture, of the non-negotiables. No more short-termism. But Auba was still the jewel in the crown. Post FA Cup win, he could do no wrong. Arteta said, upon Pierre signing his deal: "He’s an important leader for the team and a big part of what we’re building. He wants to be up there with the best players in the world and leave his mark. He can achieve that here.”
Not the words of someone planning on jettisoning him just 15 months later.
But football is not loyal. Capricious and fickle, results drive everything - and circumstances were soon to change.
Aubameyang managed just 10 league goals in a Covid-struck 2020/21. Arsenal were becoming a team focused on structured buildup - necessary, but not necessarily suited to Aubameyang’s open-field, opportunistic game. Comfortable as a talisman, an exclamation point, smiling to camera with the match ball in hand at around 4:45pm on a Saturday, Aubameyang was asked to do something different with his game. No longer just run channels, but create overloads in tight areas and drop to receive. Not his bag. Lacazette’s round hole didn’t suit his square peg, and he was often pushed to the left, prompting much debate.
Arsenal struggled, and there was even talk of relegation. Auba’s smile disappeared.
Youthful exuberance flourished and Arsenal bounced back, but only to 8th place. There was the threat of something exciting forming with Aubameyang as the pointy end of a juvenile spear, but it never quite materialised. Questions were being asked - and patience was beginning to wear thin off the pitch.
The first major incident came when Aubameyang was dropped for the North London Derby. Late, Arteta decided to set an example. It was a big call, but there was talk that this was not the first of his indiscretions at Arsenal - and if the non-negotiables were to work, they had to have no exception. Aubameyang’s supercar V8 audibly speeding off into the North London night during Arteta’s post-match interview an all too poignant sonic metaphor.
Aubameyang spoke publicly of his regret for this incident. A rap on the knuckles and we move on. Right?
Further incidents. The Athletic revealed Aubameyang had been fined for missing a COVID-19 test before a Europa League match late in 2020. In early 2021, he was 'reminded of his responsibilities' having broken COVID-19 regulations around a tattoo. Aubameyang had always positioned himself as fairly anti-establishment anyway. His association with Arsenal Fan TV and public use of some of its more iconoclastic and irreverent characters’ catchphrases endeared him to some, but cartooned him to others.
There was no helping but seeing a familiar pattern emerge. Suspension following a missed team meeting at Dortmund in 2018. Another the season before… and before that… and before that.
But idiosyncrasies are no crime, and crucially, he has the dedication in spades. In the off season of 2011, he took no break and spent the entire summer training to convince Christophe Galtier, his then coach, that he was ready to play. You don’t score 30+ goals in the Bundesliga by mistake. He is, to some, lovable. A throwback. Someone who recognises the privilege of being a footballer by having the time of his life. Swarovski-studded boots, superhero masks, even a song to his name from 2016. And so what?
Thomas Tuchel laughs off questions about Aubameyang’s ill discipline while managing him at Dortmund. “When we wanted him to be on time, we told him the meeting was 10.45am when the meeting was 11am so there was a good chance he would be there with everyone else.” Differentiation. The key to successful classrooms, workplaces. We all need different treatment.
The problem is, Arsenal can’t afford to differentiate right about now. Their squad is tender, and needs nurturing. The hordes of U23 talent require role models ahead of them in the pecking order, not renegades. Is there space for both in modern football? And if so, which is Aubameyang?
Then the kicker. The straw that broke the camel’s back, and lost Aubameyang the captaincy. Late back from a specially granted trip to France to care for his mother, the club moved swiftly to remove him from the group & his leadership duties. Arteta’s answer? “He is not available for selection”.
A deadline day trip to Barcelona, club instigated or not, brought Aubameyang’s time at Arsenal to a whimpering close. Depending on what you believe, a big saving.
In some ways, both parties have what they wanted; but it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Like a romantic relationship gone sour, sometimes you can’t help but wonder what might have been. For Aubameyang, he arrives into open arms at his new home in much the same way he did his last - sore, licking very public wounds with debates over who inflicted them and a point to prove. For Arsenal, he may one day come to represent the last great hurrah of the short-term thinking. Wenger’s final salute. The fall-guy for the culture.
Whether Barcelona will work out for him, who knows. Xavi’s comments from 2020 about his lack of ability in the small spaces, his age profile and the fact Barcelona reportedly hold both a break clause and an indiscipline clause all point to a sense that this is very much the beginning of the end of Pierre’s career - but Aubameyang is nothing if not full of surprises.
Perhaps his final comments are the most telling. Speaking at his official unveiling at the Nou Camp, Aubameyang said: "I think it was a problem just with him [Arteta]. I can't really tell you much.” His message to the fans spoke of his commitment and love for the club. Whatever happened, he has not addressed it directly. Perhaps he can’t. But a fan could be forgiven for wanting answers from their former hero.
For Arsenal, it is a sad goodbye, but a necessary one. While Aubameyang now leaves a hole in an already thin squad, perhaps absence can make the heart grow fonder. A new tone. A fresh start. There will always be worry that there was a way to bring him back into the fold, but no-one will ever know what really went on, what those conversations were really like.
Maybe he is a victim of Arteta's inexperience. Maybe he is a victim of a new age. A less forgiving one, maybe, and certainly not one that forgets. Wrong place, wrong time for such an individual. There is no doubt that Auba is a one off. However, a legend, he is not. But he does have a legacy. Perhaps the biggest being that space he leaves behind - and what can fill it.
It was fun while it lasted, but Aubameyang was bubblegum that was starting to lose its flavour. Short term gain, and long term rotten teeth. Arsenal, now and from now on, need to eat their greens.