Mikel Arteta knew the real Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was back when he watched the Arsenal striker get mad at himself for missing a penalty in training.
A double from Aubameyang rescued Arsenal’s Europa League campaign against Benfica on Thursday, with his second goal, a late header, securing a 3-2 win and a 4-3 aggregate triumph.
The Gunners had been in danger of going out on the away-goals rule at the last-32 stage, having been designated as the home side for the game which was moved to Greece because of travel restrictions between the UK and Portugal.
But it was Aubameyang who saved the day, assisted by the increasingly impressive Bukayo Saka for the second time in the game.
Last season’s FA Cup final hero, Aubameyang endured a dry spell in front of goal earlier this season but has scored eight times in 10 games in 2021 so far, at a rate of one every 98.25 minutes.
On Sunday, Arsenal return to domestic duties with a tough trip to third-placed Leicester City.
Arteta wants Aubameyang and Arsenal to kick on in the Premier League and sustain their challenge in Europe, safe in the knowledge their captain is back to his focused best.
“Sometimes when you go through difficult moments, you can have those difficult moments and get into a sad mode,” said Arteta. “I think that’s the worst thing you can do because nobody has to feel sorry for themselves when you’re having those moments.
“What you have to do is get upset, get angry, work harder and approach the situation and face it – face the challenge in a way that creates more motivation and more hunger to do it, and I think in recent weeks I’ve seen that reaction.
“For example, in a training session before we played here he missed a penalty and he was really upset.
“Instead of going sad he got upset, and I said to the coaching staff that I like that and that he would be fine [against Benfica]. When you have that mentality, I think that’s the right way to approach it.
“He is getting into much better positions, his rhythm during the games is much better with and without the ball, his movement.
“The week before when we played Benfica, he had three big chances and I am not worried about him missing them because I know if he gets in those positions, he is going to be scoring consistently so this is what he has to demand of himself.
“If we have Auba at his best, as a team we obviously have a much better chance to be successful.”
Arteta, who said Leicester boss Brendan Rodgers should be a contender to be named manager of the season, has seen his team drop to 11th in the Premier League.
The late winner against Benfica felt like a moment that could swing their season, and Arteta’s tenure, in a positive direction. Had Arsenal gone out, there may have been talk of a crisis.
“All the winners in European competition have to have a magic moment, a moment of luck, have to be able to overcome difficult situations. It’s a good experience to have together,” Arteta said. “Hopefully we can use it for the future in the next games.”
A Champions League place is on offer to the Europa League winners, and that is Arsenal’s only realistic short-term route back to the elite level.
Arteta spoke of that factor and said: “Obviously it is all the time in our mind because we know our league position at the moment. That has to improve dramatically but if we do well in this competition it gives us an extra chance and a hope to achieve something this season.”
Saka shared the spotlight with Aubameyang on Thursday and Arteta said of the 19-year-old winger: “How good can he be is a question nobody can answer.
“He is a boy that is constantly willing to learn, to get better, to work on the things he can do better and he is a very humble and hard working boy. When that happens normally, and you have the talent he has, you can go a long way.”