Alexandre Lacazette is expected to sign for Arsenal in a club record deal as Arsène Wenger moves quickly to bolster his attacking options. Fans’ reaction to buying a new striker for a fee in the region of £52m is usually unequivocally positive, yet there has been plenty of contention in Arsenal circles about the deal. Why did the club not buy him last summer if they deemed him good enough? Will he play with Alexis Sánchez or is he a replacement? Why does Olivier Giroud play ahead of him for France? Is he really an upgrade on existing options?
Let us dig a bit deeper into the player Arsenal are buying and attempt to gauge Wenger’s thought process.
Where has Lacazette come from?
The 26-year-old came through the ranks at Lyon, and his development followed a typical path for a young player: he was neither a teenage prodigy nor an Ian Wright-style ‘late developer’. He first broke into double figures for league goals in the 2013-14 with 15 in 36 starts and turned 23 at the end of that campaign – the age at which Wenger has said attackers start to produce goals and assists habitually.
Lacazette certainly did, scoring 27 times in 33 league starts the following season, 21 in 34 the next and a career best 28 in as many starts last term. As the world and his dog have been pointing out on social media, 22 of his Ligue 1 goals were penalties. This must be taken into account when looking at his numbers, but given Arsenal’s struggles to find a regular taker in the absence of Santi Cazorla having a ‘penalty merchant’ might be no bad thing.
Despite three seasons of sustained goalscoring, Lacazette has been feeding on the crumbs dropped from football’s top table. He has just five goals in the Champions League (though Lyon as a club have fallen in stature on the European stage concurrently) and only two starts for France’s senior team. Wenger might be attracted to the idea of a player with everything to prove. Speaking as Leicester closed in on their extraordinary title triumph last year, the Frenchman said:
“I believe that sometimes, when you start out at 18 years of age on the red carpet, it can make you think, ‘This is normal, this is easy’.
“A player who starts and has been educated at Arsenal starts in the Champions League for the past 20 years. Well he doesn’t know what it is like to fight every week just to make his position in the team and to win the games.
“These kinds of non-league players, once they come up, they have watched on television the Champions League or Premier League; once they are in there they are ready for a fight. That develops the hunger.”
He has hardly been slumming it at Lyon, but perhaps Lacazette’s struggle to convince doubters has imbued him with some of that spirit.
What type of player are Arsenal getting?
A glance at the goalscoring charts and the advanced scouting tool known as YouTube shows a player who can finish and scores a variety of goals; tap-ins, dinks, side-foot finishes into the far corner à la Thierry Henry and strikes from distance. Lacazette is also quite strongly right-footed.
Squat for a centre forward, the Frenchman is a similar build to former Arsenal player Sylvain Wiltord who was not really a winger but not quite a striker. This will be a concern if, as the transfer fee suggests, he leads the line as a lone striker in Arsenal’s 3-4-2-1 or 4-2-3-1. Giroud and Welbeck offer greater physicality, though Arsenal do not really play to those strengths in the majority of their games.
He is sharp across short distances, but is not really a sprinter capable of shredding defences with speed in behind in the manner of Henry or a young Nicolas Anelka. Lacazette’s movement is more economical, relying on subtle movements in tight spaces, which puts him closer to the van Persie end of the Arsenal striker spectrum.
He has also played wide before, a position Wenger often employs youngsters to improve their technique (playing against the touchline reduces the space and options available to the player in possession). This means Lacazette is very comfortable coming short and combining, and he should be able to riff with Mesut Ozil and company when Arsenal play their ‘Wengerball’ combination play around the edge of the penalty area. The likes of Podolski, Lucas Perez and even Theo Walcott have cut awkward figures when asked to link, but Lacazette should manage it.
Why have Arsenal bought him?
Put simply, goals. Despite the hoary adage that ‘defences win titles’, the Premier League has been won more often by the top goalscorers than the best defence. Their reputation as an offensive team precedes them, but Arsenal have not finished as the league’s top goalscorers since 2004-5. Of course, the overall balance of the team and creative resources from midfield play their part, but Arsenal need more 10 or so goals if they are to win a first title since 2003-4.
Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck are fine players, but are almost an inversion of each other: Giroud can finish but cannot run while Welbeck can run but cannot finish (though Giroud’s lack of pace is terminal whereas Welbeck’s finishing could improve). Wenger will hope Lacazette can develop into a hybrid of the pair’s positive attributes.
Then there is possibility of Sanchez departing. The Chilean scored 30 goals in all competitions and provided 13 assists. Notwithstanding his contributions to Arsenal’s team play, which can be erratic, that is a tremendous amount of end product to replace. Wenger might be looking to spread the burden, just as he did when signing Giroud, Lukas Podolski, and Santi Cazorla in the summer Robin van Persie was sold.
Why did Arsenal not sign him previously?
One can only speculate. For around four summers now, Arsenal have had plenty of money at their disposal so the issue with Lacazette was not financial. Rather it seems there has been a shift in policy, possibly as a result of missing out on Champions League football.
Wenger has previously adopted a ‘Goldilocks’ approach to the transfer market, particularly when it comes to strikers. When he failed to get Luis Suarez 2013, he was content not to sign a striker. When he failed to land Karim Benzema in 2015, he signed no outfield player whatsoever. Though Arsenal’s interest in Kylian Mbappe remains alive, the purchase of Lacazette is a move away from the ‘win or bust’ attitude of past summers. Perhaps Wenger also needed another season of heavy goalscoring to be convinced he was not a fly-by-night player.
Will he be a success?
Very difficult to tell. Lacazette has an air of the penalty-box poacher that has sometimes struggled at Arsenal: the original ‘fox-in-the-box’ Francis Jeffers, Podolski or Perez. Arsenal’s best strikers have been complete footballers as well as finishers.
There will be much idle gossip about whether he is ‘better than Giroud’ or not, but more pertinent is whether he is a better fit for Arsenal than their current options. On balance, the answer is yes and that makes the signing a positive step. Welbeck has greater athleticism, but his end product and fitness are not as reliable. Lacazette looks a hard-worker though the fact he has never lived abroad before might cause acclimatisation problems, even at 26.
Overall, this transfer feels closer to very good addition than a transformational, ‘last piece of the jigsaw’ purchase. Whether that constitutes success for a £52m striker will be fiercely debated, though the sums involved in the modern market are bordering on meaningless. A likely outcome is a commendable return of 20-odd goals in all competitions, that leaves Arsenal fans still wanting a ‘world-class striker’ next summer.