It looked at one stage as though Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang would become the talisman of Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal, yet now he is the symbol of a dysfunctional period the Gunners appear to be leaving behind.
Aubameyang signed a new three-year contract with Arsenal in September 2020 — worth an initial £250,000-a-week plus generous add-ons — with the aim of becoming “an Arsenal legend and to maybe leave a legacy.” He certainly left a legacy, although it is more complicated than anyone could have imagined back then.
Following a gradual deterioration in his relationship with Arteta, Aubameyang went from captain to castaway. He was punished, ostracised, and was then allowed to join Barcelona on a free transfer in February, where he spent six months before returning to London on the assumption he could play under one of his former bosses who still admired him, Thomas Tuchel, only for the German to be sacked by Chelsea six days later.
On Sunday, the Blues host Arsenal at Stamford Bridge with a 10-point gap between the two sides, meaning the 33-year-old will come face-to-face with Arteta and the team it was felt would grow better without him for the first time. The marks from that period are still visible. The tattoos certainly are. Such was the depth of feeling and the speed of transformation that this weekend will likely see Aubameyang line up wearing Chelsea’s No. 9 shirt, with a tattoo on his right arm of himself (alongside his two children) wearing Arsenal’s No. 14.
Even body art was a bone of contention by the end of his time at Arsenal. In February 2021, there were suggestions Aubameyang had broken COVID-19 rules by getting a tattoo on his hand, one of several disciplinary issues which gradually eroded his standing in the squad. Sources told ESPN at the time that there wasn’t one big incident which prompted Arsenal to part with Aubameyang, more a series of minor breaches which undermined the professionalism Arteta was demanding from his squad.
Among the various misdemeanours, Aubameyang was reported to have missed a drug test, turned up late for multiple meetings and, as one source put it, regularly requested time away the group. Some of that was compassionate leave to visit his unwell mother, Margarita, but there was a view inside the club that he was not showing sufficient dedication while also risking COVID-19 complications related to his additional travel. He is generally viewed as a gregarious and popular character, although his flash cars and garish lifestyle can be divisive, especially for those who value humility and discipline.
When it came to parting ways, Arteta was ruthless. Last December, Aubameyang was stripped of the captaincy, forced to train alone and eventually allowed to leave on a free transfer. Aubameyang was bitter. Footage leaked recently from his early days at Barcelona shows the 33-year-old delivering a withering assessment of Arteta.
“Big characters and big players … he can’t deal with it,” Aubameyang said. “He needs some young players who don’t say anything.”
Aubameyang has since distanced himself from those comments by claiming: “I still had a lot of bad feelings in me — Arsenal are doing great things this season and I wish all my old guys well, just not on Nov. 6.”
Allowing Aubamayeng to depart came at a high price. Arsenal did not sign a replacement and with just Alexandre Lacazette and Eddie Nketiah to call on, the Gunners were short on firepower and just missed out on Champions League qualification.
Yet the club believed the longer-term cultural shift Arteta had implemented was worth the short-term risk and this season, following a summer of shrewd investment, that view is reaping dividends. Arsenal are top of the Premier League with Gabriel Jesus setting the tone for the Gunners in almost the opposite way to Aubameyang; often, the ex-Gabon international’s contribution was a goal and little else, whereas Jesus presses relentlessly, generating space and chances for others through his relentless running and intelligent movement.
Jesus’ seven-game goal drought is a concern but offset by his contribution to the rest of the team. Aubameyang’s contribution was measured almost entirely in goals. He became the fastest player in Arsenal’s history to reach 50 Premier League goals (in 79 games) and his clinical touch was crucial in winning the 2020 FA Cup, a key reason why he was handed such a lucrative contract later in the year. Yet after signing that deal, he scored 13 goals in 43 league games as his influence waned. This made it a little easier for some Arsenal fans to stomach Aubameyang’s departure, but this weekend’s clash gives the striker a chance to prove suggestions of his permanent decline were premature.
There was a debate at one time over whether Aubameyang would be revived playing through the middle as opposed to off the left wing, where he had been at his most effective for Arsenal, but Arteta was never fully sold on the idea. On Sunday, he will likely start as a centre-forward for Chelsea.
Aubameyang had hoped working with Tuchel again could trigger a period of calm after a turbulent year. Tuchel had spoken glowingly of Aubameyang when in the midst of the row with Arteta, remembering fondly their relationship at Borussia Dortmund, where the striker scored 79 goals in 95 appearances until joining the Gunners in 2018.
New Chelsea boss Potter has also spoken glowingly of Aubameyang’s attitude — particularly in reference to his recovery from a horrifying robbery at his family home in Barcelona which left him with a broken jaw — and has been mindful of his physical workload, dropping him to the bench for league games against Brentford and Brighton in the last fortnight. Aubameyang has just one league goal to his name for Chelsea — against Crystal Palace on Oct. 1 — and Potter will be seeking a response from his players after a chastening 4-1 defeat at his former club Brighton last weekend.
Aubameyang is the latest in a long and expensive line of forwards aiming to break the so-called “No. 9 curse” at Chelsea, which has seen Romelu Lukaku, Fernando Torres and Alvaro Morata, among others, underperform in recent years. Sources have told ESPN that Chelsea were keen on signing Aubameyang two years ago, but Arsenal pulled out all the stops to retain him on that new deal. This weekend, Aubameyang has a chance to remind everyone why he was once so in demand.