It was a risk and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang knew it. Arsenal were always going to take a dim view of his trip to Barcelona on Monday morning, which was where the striker felt he had needed to be. Just in case. To give himself the best opportunity of making it happen.
It was not authorised by Arsenal and so there was the possibility of the club fining him although, given the state of his relationship with them and, more specifically, the manager, Mikel Arteta, it had to have felt low down his list of concerns.
What was rather higher up was the potential to for him to become a laughing stock, a latter-day Peter Odemwingie. In January 2013 the then West Brom centre-forward had driven to QPR on deadline day, believing he was about to complete a transfer only to be left in his car outside Loftus Road.
For Aubameyang, his father’s house in Sitges – a little way down the coast from Barcelona – was not exactly the Shepherd’s Bush roundabout but the reputational damage stood to be the same if things did not work out. And yet he has not got to where he is without having the courage of his convictions, without seeing a chance and going for it.
As Aubameyang basked in the excitement and acclaim of his Barcelona unveiling at the Camp Nou on Thursday, having got his move at the last moment, there was a candid admission about Arteta. Had the problem at Arsenal simply been with him? “I think it was only with him and then he took this decision,” Aubameyang said. “He wasn’t happy and that’s it. I was calm.”
More broadly, as Aubameyang held court in Spanish – his second language behind French and in front of Italian, English and German in that order of fluency – he was reminded of two things. First, the wisdom of trusting in his instincts and second, how it is possible in this crazy game for fortunes to change in the blink of an eye.
Aubameyang had been dropped from the Arsenal squad by Arteta on 11 December for a disciplinary breach – a late return from an authorised trip to France; not his first problem with punctuality – then stripped of the club captaincy and cast into exile.
The 32-year-old went to the Africa Cup of Nations with Gabon but he did not feature after testing positive for Covid and then being diagnosed with heart lesions. Gabon released him back to Arsenal on 17 January, where he remained in the deep freeze; overlooked for selection, barred from training with his teammates. He was pushed towards a club in Saudi Arabia but did not want to go. When Arsenal went to Dubai for their warm-weather training break, he was left in London.
Now Aubameyang stands at Barcelona, one of the biggest clubs in the world, with a contract until 2025, albeit with a break clause after 18 months. And the chance to prove a point to one man, in particular.
“I am living a dream and I will work to stay here as long as I can,” Aubameyang said. “It has been a long time since I played a match but I am clear that I am ready to play and help. I have spoken to Xavi [the manager] and he sees me as a No 9.
“Monday was a very long day, madness, and we signed in the last two minutes. I was at my Dad’s house, waiting for everything to be OK. In the afternoon, they called me to go and do the medical. There was a bit of stress at the end but it was all good.”
What we know about Aubameyang’s crimes against Arteta is that one of them came last March when he reported late for the derby against Tottenham and was dropped to the bench. The month before, the forward had been reminded of his responsibilities by the club after apparently breaching Covid rules to get a tattoo. Then it all kicked off in December when he missed his flight back from France.
There had been lots of muttering about how he was always late; at which point, it is perhaps worth remembering the words of Thomas Tuchel, the Chelsea manager, who had Aubameyang at Borussia Dortmund.
“When we wanted him to be on time, we told him the meeting was 10.45am when it was 11am,” Tuchel said last May. “He did not miss one single training session in two years. Maybe he arrived five minutes late – that can happen with him. But if he does this, he is in a hurry, he is sorry and he has still a smile on his face. That’s him, and it’s hard to be really mad with the guy. He has a big heart. A bit crazy but nice crazy.”
Jürgen Klopp, who also managed Aubameyang at Dortmund, would say the same things and so would Christophe Galtier, the Nice coach, who worked with him at St Étienne. In other words, count to 10 when it comes to the scattiness; embrace the exuberance.
Was there something else between Aubameyang and Arteta? Something more egregious? It almost feels as if there had to be. According to Ian Wright, there was nothing. “The saddest thing for me was that we don’t know what’s happened,” the former Arsenal striker said. “I don’t know and I’m in touch with Aubameyang.”
When attitudes are perceived to be wrong, when conflict arises, Arteta does not tend to negotiate. Just ask Mattéo Guendouzi or William Saliba, the Arsenal youngsters on loan at Marseille. Precocious talent can be petulant, challenging. Arteta seems to have zero tolerance; it is his way or the highway.
Arteta has insisted that Aubameyang’s poor form this season was not a factor in his treatment of him, even if it is easy to wonder. What if Aubameyang had 14 Premier League goals instead of four?
The player had no desire to leave Arsenal – unlike some of the club’s superstars from the not too distant past he did not put in a transfer request. Rather he was forced to go, with Arteta wanting him out permanently, and not on loan.
Aubameyang’s solution was to make his leap of faith, to travel to Barcelona, to show the club he meant business. The move drew nods of approval from them, as did his decision to accept a lower salary until the end of the season as Barcelona seek a way out of their economic crisis.
“You know that when Barcelona’s finances are healthy, Barcelona will show gratitude to those who have helped Barcelona,” Joan Laporta, the president, told him.
Aubameyang is back on the up. “They were difficult months,” he said of the end at Arsenal. “Football is like that sometimes. If I have to say anything about that, for my part I never believed I did anything bad. But it is behind me. I want to think of the present.”