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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Arsene Wenger's relationship with goalscoring royalty Aubameyang key to Arsenal's success

Gabonese striker moved to the Emirates Stadium from Borussia Dortmund in a club record deal.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang became Arsenal's record signing when he completed his move from Borussia Dortmund.  Bernd Thissen / AFP
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang became Arsenal's record signing when he completed his move from Borussia Dortmund. Bernd Thissen / AFP

Earlier this month, Arsene Wenger took a series of phone calls from west Africa. The caller was joyful, exuberant and, judging by the way Wenger talks about the conversations with an old friend, the Arsenal manager appreciated being reminded of certain values – generosity, loyalty – he may sometimes think are hard to trace modern football.

The caller was George Weah, asking Wenger if he might squeeze into his diary a trip to attend the inauguration of the new president of Liberia. The new president of Liberia is George Weah, former footballer, the first and as yet only African to win the Ballon D’Or.

“He is a very generous person, I must say,” Wenger told the BBC World Service in a warm, heartfelt interview about Weah’s remarkable ascent in politics and about his own role as – to quote Weah – a "father figure" to the Liberian leader.

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Wenger was, to quote the Arsenal manager, Weah’s "discoverer", in an era where scouting was a matter not of trawling through video footage on the internet but real sleuthing, persistence, trust in the sharp eyes of scouts and a sound hunch.

Tipped off that the 21-year-old striker from a nation with scant football pedigree might turn out special, Wenger invited him to Monaco 30 years ago. The rest, via AC Milan and now politics, is history.

Wenger told Weah, apologetically, he would not be able to make the inauguration following Weah’s victory in Liberia’s elections. There were three London derbies to play, and besides, Wenger had a hectic transfer window to deal with, one where Arsenal’s business would focus around another west African striker.

Like Weah, the Gabonese Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is the figurehead footballer for a nation without much history of achievement in the sport. Unlike Weah, at this stage in the 28-year-old’s life there is little chance of Aubameyang being described as "presidential".

But the man Arsenal have paid Borussia Dortmund close to €64 million (Dh292m) for, is royalty in goalscoring terms, and his relationship with Wenger may well turn out as the major factor in shaping the 18 months left on the manager’s contract with Arsenal.

Aubameyang does not pass anywhere incognito, with his luminous cars and clothes, and his keenness to move from Dortmund was shouted out through various disruptive disagreements.

He had let himself be linked with a number of major clubs in the last year, knowing the market for a forward of electric speed, potency and a record of 140-off Bundesliga goals in a little over 200 matches was always going to be wide.

Arsenal, a club outside the Uefa Champions League and quite a way from the Premier League’s top four right now, can regard his capture as a coup.

The club’s connections at Dortmund – Arsenal hired their new chief scout, Sven Mislintat from Dortmund – helped, but so did Wenger’s reputation as a guide and guru, particularly to African talent.

Besides Weah, Wenger has advanced the careers of Nigerian forward Nwankwo Kanu, and the Togo striker Emmanuel Adebayor. Like them, Aubameyang is a former African Footballer of the Year.

He is asked to have an instant effect. Arsenal have had a patchy January and go into Saturday’s home game against Everton on the back of a 3-1 loss at Swansea City.

“We need more offensive power,” Wenger said of the new signing. “We aren’t efficient enough going forward. I’m convinced he’ll bring us that.”

Quite where that leaves Alexandre Lacazette, who Aubameyang has displaced as the most expensive recruit in Arsenal’s history, remains to be seen. Lacazette, signed from Lyon last July, has one goal from his last 12 outings.

Theo Walcott, meanwhile, has two goals for Everton since leaving Arsenal, one of three high profile strikers – Alexis Sanchez, now at Manchester United, and Olivier Giroud, at Chelsea the others – who have effectively made way for Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

Those two were once a formidable pair for Dortmund – they combined, as scorer or assister, for 19 goals in two seasons together – and theirs will be an important relationship for the new-look Arsenal. But it’s the relationship between manager and maverick new striker that is key.