Arsenal’s Captaincy Conundrum: Where did it all go wrong?

He used to be Arsenal's lone shining light, so what has gone so wrong for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang at the Gunners?

Image: Wikimedia Commons / Chensiyuan

Image: Wikimedia Commons / Chensiyuan

Where did it all go wrong? Eighteen months ago, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang provided a glimmer of light in a time of darkness. A year shattered by lockdowns, social-distancing, death and despair had a chink of joy. Two goals, a dropped trophy and the hope of a new dawn offered great promise for Arsenal and their match-winning captain.

Fast forward to the present and a return to that period of darkness looms ominously. The fear of another lockdown, thousands of deaths and more misery cannot be ignored. Yet, a replication of that moment of brilliance and chink of light in the FA Cup final looks irretrievable.

The latest supposed “disciplinary breach” from the Gabonese superstar has cost him the captaincy. Another setback in the career of Aubameyang who has appeared bereft of confidence in front of goal since that final, and after the (panic) awarding of a new £250,000-per-week contract by the club to secure their once world-class asset.

This is not the first time the self-proclaimed “coolest captain in the world” has failed to meet the standards required for the leader of any side, let alone Arsenal. In March of this year, he failed to arrive on time for the North London derby which led to his exclusion from the starting eleven.

His unlikely leadership role was thrust on Aubameyang following the previous captain Granit Xhaka’s on-field meltdown. However, whilst not possessing what would be considered ‘natural’ leadership qualities, Aubameyang would lead by example in his performance. What he would lack in authority was made up by an abundance of elite performances, raising the level of those around him.

This type of captaincy is only sustainable so long as these performances are maintained. However, as the goals dried up and his confidence drained, the illusion of inspiration crumbled. Aubameyang couldn’t seem to buy a goal, even with that hefty contract.

Off-field issues including the contracting of malaria and the ill health of his mother will have certainly influenced his poor showings. Of course, every player will go through periods in their career of goal droughts and sub-par performances.

However, the on-field disappointments do not excuse the lack of discipline and careless manner in which Aubameyang has conducted himself too often. As captain and the experienced player in a young dressing room, he has to be held to a higher standard and, at bare minimum, follow the rules set by the manager.

Whilst Xhaka has been able to rebuild his career at Arsenal following his disastrous spell as captain, the same doesn’t appear possible this time. Xhaka became a scapegoat under and for previous manager Unai Emery but has been given a second chance under Arteta.

Aubameyang has been anything but a scapegoat. To the detriment of the whole side, Arteta has persisted with Aubameyang in an attempt to recapture that once magnificent form. He has played as an inside left-forward, as a second striker and as a sole number nine, but has been unable to regain his golden touch.

Aubameyang’s time at the club virtually appears up. There seems to be little reconciliation possible and he will find it hard to break into the starting line-up given the form of the young core of talent at Arteta’s disposal.

Details surrounding Aubameyang’s conduct remain hazy and Arteta has released few details. But his loss of trust in his captain and the subsequent hurt he felt when making his decision is clear.

The next key decision for the young manager will be who replaces Aubameyang, both up front and as captain. If Aubameyang is to leave, he will join Alexandre Lacazette and Eddie Nketiah as part of an exodus of strikers at The Emirates in 2022.

So, who comes in? Dušan Vlahović appears the dream but is the name on the lips of most leading clubs in Europe, so he is probably an impossible transfer. Victor Osimhen and Dominic Calvert-Lewin appear too expensive.

Folarin Balogun will be given chances to make the step up from youth football. Whether the young forward is ready for Premier League football remains to be seen. A striker is a must-buy in the summer and the club will have to get the recruitment perfect.

Last summer’s recruitment may offer a solution to the other pressing leadership question. Aaron Ramsdale has been a revelation in goal and his buoyant theatrics have completely changed fans’ preconceived misgivings. Ramsdale possesses a booming presence and may be the man Arteta hands the armband to. However, entrusting a goalkeeper with the captaincy won’t solve the lack of leadership outfield and so remains unlikely.

Martin Ødegaard is in a rich vein of form and is beginning to stamp his authority following his switch from Real Madrid in August. The Norwegian captain’s successful loan spell in North London last January demonstrated his leadership and technical quality. Despite being in and out of the side and still only 22, Ødegaard appears a strong favourite to take the mantle.

On the surface Gabriel Magalhães would be the ideal captain. The imperious centre-half is proving himself to be one of the best defenders in the league. The Brazilian is calm and composed yet able to provide strength when needed. The only, but major, sticking point is his lesser ability to speak English. Despite improving, his ability to communicate as coherently with the referees offers a clear obstacle.

We are now left with the obvious option in Kieran Tierney. The Scot is an experienced leader and his appointment should unite a fractious fanbase. His no-nonsense attitude on and off the field has earned him the privilege of captaining both Celtic and Scotland on occasion. He plays with a schoolboy energy yet oozes class and fervour resonating with the fans and players alike. A dodgy injury record should not prevent Arteta from appointing the clear favourite as his new captain.

Whoever is chosen to succeed Aubameyang, whether now or at the end of season, will be entrusted with guiding a hugely talented, but raw, squad. The captaincy of Aubameyang has rather epitomised the past couple of seasons at the club; capable of beauty and success underlined with a damaging inconsistency on and off the field.

As the world looks perilously close to entering another period of pain and angst, football will certainly continue. Whether with the motivation of the fans, or without, Arsenal will need a hugely impressive second half of the season in order to earn European football for next year.

As for Aubameyang, the situation at Arsenal is beginning to resemble his sour departure from Borussia Dortmund in 2018. The goal-machine has provided a topsy-turvy but ultimately entertaining four years in North London. If this is not just the end of his captaincy, but of his career at Arsenal, it is a sad finale for one the best players the club has had in the Emirates Era. A spell which should be remembered by that FA Cup Final brace, rather than the antics we always knew he would inevitably bring.