Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta looked into the eyes of his captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and knew the star striker had to go.
‘That level of trust was gone,’ the young coach tells the next instalment of the fly-on-the-wall documentary, All or Nothing Arsenal.
‘It was a really difficult decision to make, in the middle of the season, and with the most important player of the club and the impact not having that player could have on the performance of the team.
‘But if you put all these ingredients together and still the decision is clear, then you have to make it.’
Mikel Arteta has told the All or Nothing documentary that he lost trust in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang
The second three – of eight – episodes in the series will be streamed from Thursday
The documentary provides an extraordinary insight into the rift involving Aubameyang
The documentary provides an extraordinary insight into a rift that threatened to destabilise the club and could have put a hole in the Spaniard’s fledgling managerial career.
The documentary chronicles the end of ‘Auba’s’ Arsenal spell, which lasted almost five years and included 163 appearances and 92 goals.
But as the fanbase fractured and club executives wobbled, Arteta stuck to his principles.
He stood his ground and refused to compromise in his crusade to transform Arsenal back into an elite football club after years of drift. And as a result, he laid down the law to the rest of his young squad.
The next blockbuster episodes of the Amazon Prime Video series, which will be streamed from Thursday, appear to confirm Aubameyang’s own version of events. The Gabon international has insisted that it was Arteta who forced him out of the Emirates.
Aubameyang was the club’s top striker and a former Golden Boot winner who scored 163 Arsenal goals
He signed a new three-year, £350,000-per-week contract at the club in September 2020
All of Nothing reveals the boss believed Aubameyang, 33, had disrespected him and the club and for Arteta, there was no way back; the rules apply to everyone.
‘He’s been late, apart from all the issues, many times,’ Arteta, who says he kept a dossier of incidents with dates and times, tells a colleague in the film.
‘The club has got a tradition. When you get paid that much money…’
At first, the player was stood down from first team duties and then stripped of the club captaincy. Ultimately, Aubameyang’s contract was terminated by mutual consent and he moved to Barcelona.
However, the situation was complicated both legally and commercially, since there was no obvious taker for the £350,000-a-week striker in the forthcoming transfer window.
Aubameyang led Arsenal to a 14th FA Cup crown after scoring a brace in the Wembley final
The striker joined Barcelona after four years at Arsenal after he was forced out of the club
As a result, Arsenal’s hierarchy considered ‘reintegrating’ Aubameyang, something the manager simply could not accept.
For Arteta discipline within the squad is always paramount. The Amazon Prime Video microphones picked up the manager speaking to club doctor, Gary O’Driscoll, on the training pitch during a winter break in Dubai in January at the peak of the crisis.
‘What do you have to do?’ he asks O’Driscoll, in a terse discussion about rule-breaking. ‘Just let it go?’
‘What do you have to do? What do you do?’ he keeps demanding of the doctor.
‘If you let it go… it’s OK? What happened… in the last 10 years? Let it go… the next one the same… the next one the same. In Spain, it is called ‘casa pepe’… everyone does whatever he f*****g wants.’
Mikel Arteta takes centre stage in the latest All or Nothing docuseries focusing on Arsenal
The Aubameyang saga finally concluded in dramatic fashion at 10.59pm, one minute before the transfer window closed, on deadline day in January, when the player was forced out and joined Barcelona.
Aubameyang took a pay cut and Arsenal were forced to give him £7million in compensation, while he also picked up £230,000-a-week in wages until the end of the season.
The drama was a defining period of the campaign, putting players and manager under huge pressure and leaving Arsenal short of a striker before, during and after the transfer window – a problem they hope they have now solved with the purchase of Gabriel Jesus from Manchester City.
Trouble was brewing as far back as the autumn. Aubameyang, a leader for the Gunners’ young side, was out of form and on the bench.
The club agreed the player could visit his mother in France, but according to team-mates he was late back. From that moment, Aubameyang was out in the cold, training alone.
Edu (above) was concerned that the relationship between Arteta and Aubameyang was ‘zero’
In the docuseries, the manager is heard speaking to Mark Gonnella, the club’s director of communications, in the corridor.
‘I want you to be prepared for what is going to happen,’ Arteta tells Gonnella prior to Aubameyang being excluded from a matchday squad to play Southampton.
The players were already discussing the crisis, and while disappointed to be deprived of their talismanic team-mate, they couldn’t help but admire Arteta’s resolve.
‘What has happened with Auba, yesterday?’ midfielder Mohamed Elneny asked in the club canteen.
‘He went to Paris… he came home… the boss wanted him back like, I think, one day before he came back,’ explained defender Rob Holding. ‘The next day he was late for training. He had permission to go there… he had to go and see his mum. And then didn’t get back in time and didn’t listen to him [Arteta] and do the correct thing.’
‘The boss has balls, yeah?’ observes Elneny.
‘Yeah, the boss has balls,’ agrees Holding.
Defender Rob Holding admires his manager for his ‘ruthless’ approach to transforming team
Mohamed Elneny (left) remarked Arteta’ has ‘balls’ for his stance on Aubameyang
The reason for Arteta’s determination to confront Aubameyang’s behaviour was based on three things.
Firstly, the values he is trying to instill in the club – respect, commitment and passion – are, in his words, ‘non-negotiable’; secondly, Arteta claims he and the player agreed terms of engagement when the striker’s contract was extended in 2020 and those rules were broken, and thirdly, the coach is determined to change the culture at the Emirates, so he couldn’t let this go.
‘If someone breaks some of the non-negotiables that is a really difficult point to get something back from,’ Arteta tells the Prime Video cameras.
As the weeks rolled on, and the questions piled up at Arteta’s press conferences, it was decided to strip Aubameyang of the captaincy.
In a tense meeting in mid-December, the manager broke the news to his players. And significantly, he used the moment to underline the importance of the rules.
The boss is open with his players and the All or Nothing Arsenal series has been revealing
‘The club and myself, we are not going to accept any behaviour like this,’ he told the group of wide-eyed young players. ‘What we are building goes against any behaviour like that.
‘So [if we are] to have any meaning in changing our culture and making sure we become a different club and team, we have to stand to those words clearly in every action, with anybody.’
Interestingly, while some players expressed their hope the situation could be resolved, they also accept their manager’s tough approach to the job.
‘He is very intense and very demanding and you have to rise to that or you are moved on,’ reflected Holding in an interview for the series. ‘I think that is what keeps everyone on their toes, he can be quite ruthless, but that is important.’
‘Growing up watching Arsenal I have seen them get a few red cards, so I knew he could be very…[gestures with fist]… sometimes,’ Bukayo Saka told Prime Video with a smile.
‘I want the pressure,’ added Xhaka, simply.
Arteta’s passion for the club, his players and football, not to mention his relentless energy, mitigated the impact of Aubameyang’s suspension.
In the next four games, the Gunners put three past Southampton and two past West Ham United, before they thumped Leeds 4-1 and Norwich City 5-0.
Even so, the club’s hierarchy was concerned. While they speak in the documentary in support of the manager, they concluded at one stage that Arteta needed to be persuaded to let ‘Auba’ back in.
Aubameyang signed for Barcelona with a minute of the January transfer window remaining
The 32-year-old posed with Barcelona president Joan Laporta (centre) and Jordi Cruyff (left)
The legal position in sidelining the striker was not strong, with lawyers warning Edu Gaspar, the Arsenal’s technical director and Richard Garlick, director of football operations, that the club was on the ‘backfoot’, an assessment that eventually materialised in the form of the £7m settlement.
On top of that fans were unhappy and the presence of a disaffected player in the camp, especially the former captain, was adding to the anxiety.
Edu, Garlick and chief executive Vinai Venkatesham began to think it would be better if ‘Auba’ was brought back in.
‘We have got a problem now, which is we have a player that feels like he is nowhere near the team, no chance of competing,’ said Venkatesham at a meeting in January.
‘We have to talk Aubameyang into meeting,’ added Edu. ‘He has to come back to the squad and help us until the end of the season.’
‘We are going to have to reintegrate him,’ said Venkatesham, ‘We have to.’
‘There needs to be a conversation with Mikel, then,’ suggested Garlick.
‘We don’t think it is that easy, but we have to see,’ added Edu. ‘But beware, downstairs, the relationship is zero.’
He had not made an appearance since being disciplined by Gunners boss Arteta in December
While Aubameyang was 5,000 miles away representing Gabon at the African Cup of Nations, non-executive director and board member, Tim Lewis, was dispatched downstairs to speak to Arteta over a light lunch in the canteen.
‘There isn’t an easy right answer here, but if it goes past the end of January, he has all the cards,’ Lewis, a corporate lawyer, told Arteta, who sits stony faced, says nothing and barely makes eye contact.
Aubameyang’s own assessment of his demise at Arsenal, given in February, was that Arteta had forced him out.
‘I think the problem was only with him and he made the decision. I can’t say much. He wasn’t very happy, I stayed very calm and that’s it,’ he said.
(Left to right) Arsenal stars Emile Smith Rowe, Ben White, boss Mikel Arteta, Takehiro Tomiyasu and Kieran Tierney attend the All or Nothing special screening in London last Tuesday
It is unclear from All Or Nothing exactly how the internal discussions evolved, but it is significant that a decision was taken to allow Aubameyang to leave the club – either through a loan or terminating his contract by mutual consent – if another team were willing to take him.
Edu and Garlick decided the best for the club was a permanent move to remove any liability for future wages and deliver a clean break from a painful situation.
Transfer deadline day dawned and Barcelona were interested, but only in a loan move.
While the rest of the Arsenal squad travelled to Dubai, Aubameyang was supposed to be training on his own at London Colney, with the club staff.
However, as Edu and Garlick fretted over their limited options, the club’s communications director, Gonnella, informed them ‘Auba’ had just landed in Barcelona. He had put it on his social media.
Sat next to Joan Laporta, Aubameyang said his ‘only problem’ at Arsenal was with the manager
Around 4pm, Edu called Aubameyang’s representative and demanded to know their intentions.
‘It’s a waiting game to see if anyone blinks,’ Garlick explained to the cameras. ‘It’s a game of poker.’
No one blinked for more than four hours. Talks began after 9pm and at 10.48pm agreement had been reached, leaving 12 minutes to get the paperwork produced, signed and into the Premier League.
At 10.59pm – with one minute to spare – Garlick declared the deal ‘done’.
Aubameyang never looked back after moving to the Nou Camp, scoring 11 goals in 17 appearances for the Catalans to help haul Xavi’s side up to a second place finish.
Back in North London, for better or worse, Arteta had stamped an indelible mark on Arsenal. And arguably, the Spaniard’s ‘project’ at Arsenal had taken a major step forwards.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang won the hearts of Arsenal’s supporters
There was unreserved joy among the fanbase when Arsenal sealed a £58million move for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang from Borussia Dortmund on deadline day in January 2018 – Arsene Wenger’s last signing for the club.
The striker’s impact – unsurprisingly given that he managed at least 15 goals in each season at Dortmund – was instant, getting off the mark on his debut in a 5-1 victory at home against Everton, writes Kishan Vaghela.
He went on to score another nine Premier League goals in 12 appearances in the second half of the 2017-18 season, and the standard had been set after his impeccable adaption to English football.
Aubameyang won the Golden Boot in his first full season after leaving Borussia Dortmund
The following season under Unai Emery, Aubameyang achieved a return of 22 Premier League goals in 36 games that saw him share the Golden Boot with Liverpool duo Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah.
The Gabon striker would end up with 31 goals in all competitions, with a further eight goals in the Europa League – including a stunning hat-trick in the second leg of the semi-final at Valencia – seeing Arsenal make the final before their Baku hiding against Chelsea.
Aubameyang was made club captain after Granit Xhaka’s foul-mouthed rant at the fans against Crystal Palace.
Arsenal’s and his own form dipped in the first half of the 2019-20 season prior to Emery’s sacking, but Freddie Ljungberg and subsequently Mikel Arteta’s arrival saw a swift upturn in his form.
And Aubameyang played a significant role in leading Arsenal to a 14th FA Cup in the summer of 2020, scoring the two goals in the semi-final to knock out holders Manchester City before another brace helped them come from behind to beat Chelsea in the final.
The Gabon international joined the Gunners in 2018 as Arsene Wenger’s final ever signing
In September 2020, a new three-year, £350,000-per-week deal was confirmed, after which the Gabon striker spoke of wanting to follow in record goalscorer Thierry Henry’s footsteps and create a ‘legacy’ at the club and become a legend.
The following season, Aubameyang and the team’s form slumped and in March 2021, Arteta sent out a warning shot: the star striker was dropped to the bench for the north London derby victory for ‘disciplinary reasons’, allegedly referring to arriving late for a squad meeting.