“My problem,” said Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in an indiscreet moment, preserved on video from earlier this year, “was only with Arteta”.
The feeling was mutual. “You cannot rescue trust,” the Arsenal manager told a documentary crew tracking the club through last season, explaining the abrupt departure of his then captain.
Eleven months ago, Arteta’s patience with Aubameyang snapped. Arsenal’s figurehead player, the leading scorer in two of the club’s three previous campaigns, was banished to train with the youth team, pushed towards the exit.
Safe to say it is an unlikely turn of events that will see these two antagonists sharing the same stage again this weekend when Arsenal visit Chelsea. Aubameyang has changed employer twice since the fallout; Arteta has taken an Arsenal orphaned of their ex-skipper to the top of the Premier League.
Hindsight now casts the fracture of that relationship as a crossroads moment in Arteta’s short career as a manager, a brave statement of his authority, his clarity. Perceived indiscipline, specifically around timekeeping, by Aubameyang led to the severing of ties. “He’s been late, apart from all the other issues, many times,” Arteta said.
Some complex negotiations at the tail-end of the January transfer window, then allowed Arsenal and Aubameyang to part on financially acceptable terms, the club agreeing to cancel the last six months of his lucrative contract so he could join Barcelona without a fee.
He took a significant salary cut for the chance to stretch his wide portfolio in club football. The intrepid Aubameyang, who began his senior career at Italy’s AC Milan, would be adding La Liga to France’s Ligue 1, where he played for several clubs, Germany’s Bundesliga, where he starred at Borussia Dortmund, and the Premier League to his résumé.
At Barca, Aubameyang showed that class travels smoothly. In half a season, he scored enough goals – 13 – to make himself Barcelona’s joint leading scorer for the entire campaign.
He scored a hat-trick on his first start in the La Liga; he scored twice and set up another in his first clasico at Real Madrid’s Bernabeu. He heard Xavi, the novice Barcelona coach, describe him in terms utterly distinct from the message from Arteta in his last weeks at Arsenal. “He set an example on and off the field,” beamed Xavi. “He’s a gem. You want these sorts of players in your group.”
But Barcelona, by the summer, wanted a different calibre of striker. Once they had signed Robert Lewandowski to lead the line and Raphinha to attack from wide on the left, they deemed Aubameyang most useful to them for the transfer fee he could bring in. He was sold to Chelsea close to the summer deadline.
“As a coach, I feel bad to lose a footballer like him,” said Xavi. “But it was a good opportunity for him and for the club.” Aubameyang, 33, brought €12m into debt-burdened Barcelona’s treasury.
His goals had also helped them finish second in La Liga. They had been outside the top four when they invited him to join them.
Arsenal, meanwhile, were seventh in the Premier League when Aubameyang played the last of his 163 games for them. They would finish the season fifth, outside the Champions League placings, their top scorer for the campaign Bukayo Saka, with 12.
If there were residual reasons then to feel Aubameyang was missed at Arsenal, the impact of Gabriel Jesus, signed from Manchester City, has quietened any Auba-nostalgia.
Arteta will take his team to Stamford Bridge with a 10-point advantage over Chelsea, confident that he has more accumulated expertise in how to tame Aubameyang than Graham Potter, Chelsea’s manager, has yet acquired in how best to use him.
The Gabonese striker initially signed for Chelsea assuming it would mean a reunion with Thomas Tuchel, who Aubameyang knew well from their time together at Dortmund. Tuchel was sacked within hours of Aubameyang’s debut.
Potter then watched him score his first Chelsea goal on his Premier League debut for his new club, at Crystal Palace, and begin his busy set of reunions with his ex-employers by scoring home and away against Milan in the Champions League. Those are his only Chelsea goals so far.
But on Wednesday, there were signs of growing confidence. His audacious back-heel to Raheem Sterling set up Chelsea’s first goal in the 2-1 win against Dinamo Zagreb. He later thumped an effort against the Dinamo crossbar. That followed a cut inside from the left, on to his right foot, and a stepover. It’s a manoeuvre Arsenal would recognise as Aubameyang’s trademark. It’s a trick Arteta will have his men fully briefed to watch out for.