Time for absent Aubameyang to handover Arsenal armband…

Ian Watson
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang applauds the Arsenal supporters.

If Mikel Arteta’s non-negotiables really are non-negotiable, it has to be three strikes and out for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as Arsenal captain.


“It means so much to me to be the captain of this special club… I want to become an Arsenal legend, just like Thierry, Wrighty, Adams and Bergkamp.”

That was Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in September 2020 upon signing a new contract. Fifteen months later, the prospect of the Arsenal skipper getting his statue has never felt more remote. And even if he did, Aubameyang would probably be late for the unveiling.

It doesn’t seem like timekeeping is behind his latest disciplinary breach. Aubameyang’s tardiness kept him on the bench for the north London derby in March, but on this occasion, even before we consider any totting-up process, the 32-year-old’s absence feels like a bigger violation than being stuck in traffic.

Of course, while Arsenal are taking on – and beating – Southampton, all we can do is speculate as to why Aubameyang isn’t involved, and a quick search on social media offers some suggestions. Mikel Arteta wasn’t in the mood to be specific when he explained his captain’s latest absence with the manager saying only that his punishment “starts today”. When it ends was not indicated.

Arteta could have swerved the issue. It is common knowledge that Aubameyang wasn’t training on Friday, an hour or so before the boss told the media that there was no rift between him and his captain. Some managers would have kept it in-house and avoided awkward questions with the imaginary twinge of a hamstring.

But Arteta is attempting to change the culture and the mindset at the Emirates as well as the fortunes of the team. The latter can’t be achieved without the former. So to persist with Aubameyang as his captain would undermine much of the good work done in raising standards at Arsenal.

Thomas Tuchel, who managed Aubameyang at Borussia Dortmund, made light of the striker’s punctuality problems, which was easy to do when it was no longer his issue to sort. “When we wanted him to be on time, we just told him the meeting was 10:45am when the meeting was at 11am,” explained Tuchel. “Ok, we could accept to have one or two guys like this in the team.”

Tuchel, though, wouldn’t accept it from his most senior player, the one trusted to set the bar, and nor should Arteta. The youngest team in the Premier League needs a captain to lead by example. A positive one. Bukayo Sako, Emile Smith Rowe, Aaron Ramsdale… they deserve a figurehead that looks at the armband as more than an accessory.

Arsenal host Southampton

Arteta certainly needs a captain more than he needs Aubameyang these days. The Gabon striker is struggling for form and Arteta was content once more to sit him on the bench at Everton on Monday. When Aubameyang came on for the final few minutes, he missed a gilt-edged chance to score a very late leveller. And with the Gunners searching for an equaliser at Manchester United four days previously, Arteta felt Arsenal’s best chance of finding one was to hook the centre-forward.

Arsenal certainly didn’t need Aubameyang on Saturday. Saints made the Gunners squirm for as long it took the hosts to open the scoring through Alexandre Lacazette. After Martin Odegaard added a second, his third in three matches, the confidence eroded by successive defeats was back and Arsenal cruised to a 3-0 victory.

So what now for Aubameyang? This latest breach of Arteta’s “non-negotiables” is his third strike of 2021. The relationship between manager and captain earlier in the week seemed “sour”, as Gary Neville put it, and after another clash, a parting feels inevitable, if not next month, then certainly in the summer, when Arsenal look set to lose Lacazette and Eddie Nketiah too.

Aubameyang can play a role in the meantime but he has neglected his captaincy responsibilities at least once too often. There are players in Arteta’s ranks better equipped to lead. “You can still be a leader without the armband,” said Kieran Tierney in October when asked about his captaincy ambitions, but the Scotland defender deserves the status and the elastic on his bicep.