“Thank you for everything, Auba,” read the message Arsenal posted. Everything? That felt like something of a whitewash, given he was stripped of the captaincy and exiled from the squad.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s own statement felt more honest. “Leaving without a real goodbye hurts,” he wrote. His Arsenal career touched heights perhaps only Alexis Sanchez has scaled since Robin van Persie left.
It also ended with Arsenal celebrating saving themselves perhaps £20 million in wages by allowing a £56m signing to go for free. It is safe to say they will not be triggering his €100m buyout clause at the Nou Camp.
For Aubameyang, joining Barcelona is a strangely happy ending to an Arsenal career of diminishing returns. It is an unexpected opportunity, forged in the tragedy of Sergio Aguero having to curtail his career, created perhaps by Barcelona’s gift for creative accounting to fit inside wage caps. But, like the Argentinian, he arrives at the Nou Camp when his best days are in the past.
Echoing Mesut Ozil, Aubameyang’s Arsenal peak came before he signed a new and lucrative contract. There were 72 goals in 111 games before that September 2020 deal, just 20 in 52 afterwards. His acceleration had appeared age-defying but he is 32 now. He is still rapid, but no longer possesses the explosive pace that enabled him to eviscerate defences.
He was the outstanding Gunners player of his first two-and-a-half seasons at the club, but it was a period of awkward transition, of the final few months of Arsene Wenger, the false dawn of Unai Emery’s reign and the start of Mikel Arteta’s.
The highlight of the post-Wenger era would have been impossible without Aubameyang: the clinical brilliance of his semi-final double against Manchester City and his final brace against Chelsea won Arsenal the FA Cup. It gave Arteta a platform for change; in time, the manager’s own ruthless streak would be shown when he disposed of the captain.
If Aubameyang at his best offered echoes of Thierry Henry, with his speed, slickness and ability to cut in from the left and score, and joined the Frenchman and Van Persie in a select band of Arsenal attackers to win the Premier League Golden Boot, his timing was off in another respect.
He was a world-class player in a mediocre team. Arsenal failed to finish in the top four in his time at the Emirates. They only came close once. Factor in the reality they did not recoup a penny of his then club record fee and, while he did not fail, the club did not succeed because of his signing.
And consider the fate of Arsenal’s ambitious buys. Rewind two years and the four costliest buys in their history were Nicolas Pepe, Alexandre Lacazette, Aubameyang and Ozil. The last two have already left on free transfers. The Frenchman could follow in the summer. It leaves only the Ivorian, who has played 19 minutes of Premier League football since October. Arsenal are unlikely to end up with much to show for their £200m outlay.
Nor do they have many goals from their remaining strikers; just three in the Premier League, all from Lacazette, none from Eddie Nketiah. If Lacazette’s hold-up and link play makes him a better fit as a centre-forward for an Arteta team, his goals are becoming rarities.
Arsenal may have imagined Dusan Vlahovic would be a very different replacement for Aubameyang but instead he chose Juventus and they are short-staffed in attack. He is not the blistering force of old but, if a lack of goals costs Arsenal, the risk is that they will be the losers from this saga.