The feeling within the Arsenal hierarchy was that there was an orchestrated campaign against Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang led by a section of the German media, but it did not stop it from registering with them. As they prepared to commit a club-record fee on the Borussia Dortmund striker, it formed a part of their discussions. Was he really a bad boy?
The evidence had been laid out in sensational detail, with the headline items being Aubameyang's three internal suspensions at Dortmund for indiscipline. The first had come in November 2016, when he nipped to Milan without the club's permission – he would be omitted from a Champions League tie against Sporting Lisbon – and the next one was 12 months later. This time it was over his time-keeping.
Aubameyang had apologised in the first instance, but on the second he said he was baffled by the sanction.
Spool forward to January of this year when Arsenal’s pursuit was in full flight. Aubameyang had wanted to leave Dortmund in the summer of 2017 only to stay put, partly because the club had received a fee of £97 million rising to £135 million from Barcelona for his close friend Ousmane Dembélé.
The tension crackled. Aubameyang's attitude was placed under the microscope. Peter Stoger, the manager at the time, has alleged that the player "refused to run during the final training session before games to underline his wish for a transfer", and a leading German football writer wondered whether Aubameyang could "raise this monkey circus" at Bayern Munich. Aubameyang and his family were understandably incensed.
At around the same time – in mid-January – Aubameyang missed a team meeting, and he was suspended by the club for the Bundesliga game against Wolfsburg, the first one back after the winter break. His head was scrambled. Dortmund would leave him out of their next fixture at Hertha Berlin because they felt he lacked focus. The temperature had reached boiling point.
Arsenal were unmoved. They had an insider in their camp, the head of recruitment Sven Mislintat who had joined from Dortmund in December 2017. He had been instrumental in taking Aubameyang from St-Étienne to Dortmund in 2013, and he vouched for him strongly, particularly on the issue of his professionalism.
It is worth remembering a couple of quotes from Hans-Joachim Watzke, the Dortmund chief executive, from January 14th. “In all this scrutiny, which is an extravagance as far as I am concerned, we mustn’t forget one thing – Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is a total professional,” Watzke said. “I don’t like the way he is being presented by the German tabloid media who, incidentally, will miss him when he doesn’t play here anymore.”
Aubameyang is a “crazy kid”. That was how he described himself after his £56 million switch to Arsenal. He could have behaved better in the final months of his Dortmund career – perhaps he was unnerved at the prospect of again missing out on a move. Yet he is a long way from being calculating or malicious.
Jürgen Klopp, who brings his Liverpool team to the Emirates Stadium for Saturday's showpiece fixture, was in charge at Dortmund during Aubameyang's first two seasons at the club, when he helped him to develop from a winger into a complete striker.
“He was not difficult to manage – not for a second,” Klopp said on Friday. “He’s a very smart boy and a very, very nice guy, with different tastes gear-wise and stuff like that. It was always really a pleasure to work with him.”
Arsenal have been thrilled so far with Aubameyang, which is hardly surprising given his numbers. In 20 Premier League starts, plus three appearances as a substitute, the 29-year-old has scored 17 goals. (He has chipped in two more in this season's Europa League. )
Since his debut against Everton on February 3rd, which he illuminated with an uber-cool dinked finish, only Liverpool's Mohamed Salah – with 18 – has scored more in the Premier League. Aubameyang's goals have come from 50 shots, giving him an efficiency rating of 34 per cent, to which no other player comes close. The next best over the period is Brighton's Glenn Murray with 28.9 per cent.
Aubameyang enters the Liverpool game having scored with his past six shots but the real killer statistic is his minutes-per-goal ratio of 103.1. It is the best in Premier League history.
Aubameyang did it in France with St-Étienne, when he was Ligue 1's second-top scorer in 2012-13 with 19; in the previous season he had scored 16. He did it in Germany with Dortmund, when he was the Bundesliga's top scorer in 2016-17 with 31; in total he scored 98 league goals in 144 appearances and 141 in 213 across all competitions. And now he is doing it in England.
How many other strikers can say they have delivered in three of Europe’s major leagues? It is not supposed to be this straightforward to settle in England but Aubameyang is the most international of people. Born in France to a Gabonese father and a Spanish mother, he made a name for himself at youth level in Italy with Milan. He describes himself as Franco-Gabonese-Spanish. He speaks French, Spanish, Italian, German and English.
Aubameyang is known for his flamboyance and exuberance – witness the front flips and the hairstyles. He has previously celebrated goals by putting on superhero masks, including Spiderman and Batman, while nobody will forget how he once warmed up for a St-Étienne game in Swarovski crystal-encrusted boots. His car collection reinforces the King of Bling image. Pride of place is a Lamborghini Aventador.
But what has set Aubameyang apart at Arsenal has been his attitude, the way that he has integrated seamlessly into the dressing room, finessing the chemistry of Unai Emery's group. He is personable, highly popular and his selfless side – not always a quality associated with goal machine strikers – has been epitomised by his bromance with Alexandre Lacazette.
Arsenal had paid a then club record £52.7 million to Lyon for Lacazette six months earlier and it felt as though Aubameyang would be a rival to him; that friction rather than friendliness would characterise their relationship. It has been the other way around.
‘Spark between us’
Aubameyang eschewed the chance of a hat-trick against Stoke last April by allowing Lacazette to take an 89th-minute penalty – Lacazette’s confidence needed a tonic, he reasoned – and then there was the Fulham game last month. Aubameyang was on the bench and, when Lacazette opened the scoring, he ran to the touchline to celebrate with him. Moreover, Aubameyang is happy to play on the left if it allows Lacazette to play in the centre. “There is a spark between us when we are on the pitch together,” Aubameyang has said.
Klopp knows where the threat will come from. “Auba’s speed is unbelievable,” he said. “He’s one of the best players for the counterattack on this planet because of the timing of the runs and his really outstanding finishing.”
Aubameyang has been through a lot over the past 12 months or so. The constant has been goals.