Breaking up is hard to do.
When it comes to a certain level of player — the key goal scorer, captain or talismanic playmaker, for example — parting ways is seldom free of acrimony. Sometimes the player’s camp will play up supposed differences with the manager or a perceived lack of respect from the club or supporters, to portray that player as victim, forced to leave a ruinous relationship. Clubs often respond in kind, briefing the media about the player’s lack of commitment or other hidden shortcomings.
What had once been swept under the rug comes out into the open, as the club seeks to explain its decision to fans and the public.
It’s fair to say the divorce of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Borussia Dortmund is fast heading for precisely that PR endgame. While the Gabon striker has so far been careful not to lay blame at his employers’ door, the flurry of indiscretions detailing his unprofessional behaviour has been telling.
Dortmund have all but lost patience with the 28-year-old and have not been shy voicing their displeasure about his behaviour. Sporting director Michael Zorc went as far as saying that Aubameyang had behaved in an “unrecognisable” manner last week, implying that in contrast to previous misdemeanours, the player had shown no remorse at all after missing two important team meetings ahead of the 0-0 draw with VfL Wolfsburg. (The second session explicitly dealt with the importance of team spirit, which made his absence all the more galling.)
Aubameyang did belatedly apologise to coach Peter Stoger upon his return to training on Tuesday, but reintegrating him into the squad will verge on the impossible. Teammates can sympathise with players pursuing a lucrative move but won’t tolerate egocentric behaviour that negatively affects the dressing room mood and the chances of winning. Aubameyang downing tools in such a blatant manner — immediately after a winter break when the team stressed the need for more togetherness again and again — has left him isolated.
Missing the odd media appointment, being late for a meeting, partying during the week or wearing a branded mask of his own personal sponsor — which contrasted with the club’s — on the pitch is one thing. Recklessly undermining team morale in pursuit of an agenda is another.
The suspicion inside the club is that Aubameyang’s latest forgetfulness was a deliberate ploy to ease his own exit. Unfortunately, going to such extreme measures usually proves effective. Once Ousmane Dembele started missing training sessions unexcused at the beginning of the season, the club had little option but to sell him to Barcelona. The Frenchman had lost the respect of his peers.
As much as he’s still liked as a person, Aubameyang, too, overstepped a crucial mark last week. What’s more, Dortmund must be worried that teenage prodigy Jadon Sancho, who seems to have taken up Dembele’s former role as Aubameyang’s sidekick, might pick up the odd bad habit from his idol as well.
By Tuesday, Dortmund had not yet received a suitable offer from Arsenal (or anyone else). Even if the Gunners were to meet Dortmund’s valuation of between €60 million and €70 million, securing a suitable replacement two weeks before the end of the transfer period won’t be a straightforward endeavour for the Bundesliga club. In light of these complexities, Stoger has been careful not to close the door on the only true centre-forward in the squad.
To his credit, the player has continued to perform at a high level throughout his 4½ years at the Signal Iduna Park, unperturbed by previous broken dreams, when concrete bids from Real Madrid, Manchester City, AC Milan and Chinese clubs never materialised. There’s still a possibility Aubameyang and his entourage will fail to land the big move once more, at which point both parties would have to find a pragmatic arrangement until the summer — the footballing equivalent of moving into separate bedrooms but staying in the same house.
The key difference to similar scenarios of the past, however, lies in Dortmund’s willingness to end the relationship here and now. Whereas they fought tooth and nail for him to stay and wilfully priced him out of one or two transfers, the prevailing attitude right now is one of resignation and disappointment, coupled with a determination to cut their losses.
Perhaps this particular liaison was always destined to end this way. Nevertheless, it would be a shame if one of the club’s — and indeed the league’s — most exciting players of the decade were to leave on such bad terms.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC’s German football expert. Follow: @honigstein