When Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang signed for Arsenal on a £56 million transfer in January 2018 there were many naysayers who questioned the move. Some thought he was too old and expensive. Others wondered if it was the best spend to buy another striker — Arsenal had bought Alexandre Lacazette six months earlier.
The main talking point, however, was Aubameyang’s attitude. He served three suspensions during his time at Borussia Dortmund and was considered a troublemaker. Dortmund head coach Peter Stoeger felt that Aubameyang’s behavior was detrimental to team morale, which was reportedly part of the reason the German club were willing to part with him.
Dortmund Sporting Director Michael Zorc explained, “We have reached the point we can’t tolerate his behavior anymore. He is a mystery to us; I don’t know what is in his mind,”
Even former Bayern Munich manager Jupp Heynckes had unkind words about Aubameyang.
I would refuse to sign such players. Football is a team sport; you can’t just be selfish and follow your own goals. You have to think about the fans as well. We have to pay attention so that the fans don’t turn their backs on us and football.
Arsenal felt differently. At the time, the Gunners’ head of recruitment was Sven Mislintat who knew Aubameyang personally from their overlap at Dortmund. Mislintat was involved with Aubameyang’s move from St-Étienne to Dortmund in 2013 and expressed belief in his level of professionalism.
Another vote of confidence came from Jürgen Klopp, who was Dortmund manager during Aubameyang’s first two seasons at the club.
“He was not difficult to manage – not for a second. He’s a very smart boy and a very, very nice guy, with different tastes gear-wise and stuff like that. It was always really a pleasure to work with him.”
Two and a half years later, the move has turned out well for Arsenal. Aubameyang has see-sawed back and forth with Mo Salah for the most Premier League goals scored since he came to England. Perhaps more importantly, Aubameyang has become a popular member of Arsenal’s dressing room and fan base and a leader. When Unai Emery appointed him captain following the Granit Xhaka incident in October some doubted he had leadership ability. As it turns out, his attitude has been one of his top qualities.
Those that thought his presence might cause friction with Lacazette have certainly been proven wrong. Their partnership has become one of Arsenal’s best weapons on the pitch, and looking at their social media pages, the pair have become good friends off the pitch.
Lacazette spoke to Arsenal.com about Aubameyang in February. “I think people should talk more about Auba and what he is doing in the game. He is more than a goalscorer, he is working a lot for the team defensively and making space for the other striker - Eddie [Nketiah] or me.”
Since Arteta took over, Aubameyang has led by example. He has accepted being asked to play on the left rather than as a central striker and his defensive side of the game has improved tremendously. All the while, he’s kept banging in goals and picking up assists.
Aubameyang has scored 64 times in 103 games overall since joining Arsenal. He recently became the fastest Arsenal player to reach 50 goals in just his 79th appearance, eclipsing Thierry Henry by four games. He was a co-recipient of the Premier League Golden Boot last season with 22 goals. He is currently second in this season’s race with 20 goals to Jamie Vardy’s 22.
Surprising praise for Aubameyang recently came from Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville, one of the most frequent Arsenal-critics in the football punditry. Following Aubameyang’s brace in Arsenal’s 3-2 victory over Everton in February Neville said:
You talk about Arsenal lacking characters and leadership, I think this guy has everything you would want. I didn’t know how he would adapt to being told to go and play on the left-hand side. The idea of doing a shift there when you think you’re the top man and you’re the goal scorer - but he seems to have a bought into it. He doesn’t look like he has been a moment’s bother since he’s come to Arsenal, so all the suggestions that he could have issues off the pitch have not materialized. I think the doubts have got to be removed now. I feel he doesn’t get appreciated anywhere as near as much as he should do.
In addition to his on-field contributions, Aubameyang serves as a mentor to Arsenal’s youngsters. Players such as Bukayo Saka have talked about how much they look up to their captain for his leadership and guidance.
Aubameyang has proven his critics wrong. Instead of a troublemaker, he’s turned out to be a leader on and off the pitch. The only problem now for Arteta is convincing his captain to stay in North London as part of the new manager’s rebuilding project.