When you think of Arsenal under Arsene Wenger, attacking talent instantly springs to mind. Thierry Henry, Ian Wright, Dennis Bergkamp, Robin van Persie, Robert Pires and Alexis Sanchez all thrived under the Frenchman, notching up over 650 goals between them during his lengthy spell in charge. But now, following failed pursuits of Karim Benzema and Luis Suarez, and unsuccessful centre forward experiments in Theo Walcott and Gervinho, it’s the turn of club record signing Alexandre Lacazette to lead the Gunners’ frontline.
According to ESPN FC journalist Julien Laurens, Wenger has courted Lacazette for almost a decade after watching him at the U17 European Championships in 2008, but for whatever reason always hesitated to pull the trigger on a move. That was until this summer, where he forked out £45million for the Lyon striker before describing him as ‘a player who will help us challenge at the top level next season’. But despite his excellent scoring record in Ligue 1, fans have been quick to write off the 26-year-old which is ridiculous considering he has yet to feature in red and white.
However, there is something that separates Lacazette from the likes of Henry, van Persie and Alexis – the number nine shirt. Superstition is often overstated in football, but ever since a phenomenally talented yet sulky teenager named Nicolas Anelka donned the same jersey in 1998, the footballing gods have had their dolls and needles at the ready for anyone brave enough to take it on since. Looking back five, ten or even 15 years, history doesn’t look pretty.
Davor Suker, brought into the club as part of the Anelka to Real Madrid deal, started eight Premier League games for Arsenal and missed a penalty in the UEFA Cup final shoot-out against Galatasaray. Francis Jeffers, billed as a ‘fox in the box’ when he signed from for £8million in 2001, scored just four goals in 22 appearances before being sent back to Everton on loan and ending up at Charlton for less than a third of what he originally cost. Coincidence, right?
Not quite. Jose Antonio Reyes, signed as a teenager in a then club record deal worth £17.5million, settled in quickly and became a real fan’s favourite. However, the physicality of English football combined with homesickness saw his form tail off, before heading to Real Madrid on loan. He left permanently for Atletico Madrid a year later with the Gunners making a significant loss on their initial outlay. Julio Baptista arrived at the Emirates from Real Madrid in exchange for Reyes and managed only ten goals in 35 games, six of them in the League Cup. His four goals at Anfield aside – a deal to forget.
Park Chu-Young, arguably the most bizarre signing of all, came in 2011. Quite why Arsenal signed the South Korean striker remains a mystery. He made just one eight-minute long substitute appearance during his three-year spell in North London, but hey, he scored a nice goal against Bolton so we’ll always have that. I refuse to mention Eduardo here because had it not been for his horrific double leg break, the 2007/08 side would have won the title in style and partly thanks to the Croatian’s ice cold nature in front of goal. He remains a big regret for Wenger and the fans alike.
Much like Eduardo, Lukas Podolski and Lucas Perez were both talented players who found themselves marginalised due to a number of reasons. The former brought great experience to the squad, a bubbly personality to the dressing room and consistent end product, but was an awkward fit stylistically for Arsenal’s fluid game. The latter was much more suited to faster, free-flowing football, but struggled to establish himself due to injuries and strong competition within the squad, despite impressing when given opportunities. Neither can be considered failures, but neither were really able to make a significant impact.
So back to the present day. What can Arsenal expect from Lacazette? The French striker has been wrongly reduced in some quarters as a penalty box player, when he has the intelligence, awareness and one/two-touch game to play with a technically top-level foil and trim defences apart. Having played as a winger, off the striker and as the main centre forward during his time at Lyon, his wide palette means he should adapt easily to working with Danny Welbeck and Olivier Giroud, as well as in tandem with Mesut Ozil, Alexis and Alex Iwobi. His finishing is only getting better with time, as the numbers prove.
Not only has Lacazette impressed on a technical basis, but on a mental one as well. He was born in Lyon, he grew up in Lyon and he has played for Lyon since the age of six, and that really shone through every time he took to the field in their colours. During difficult times, he became the poster boy for an exciting generation that featured the likes of Maxime Gonalons, Samuel Umtiti, Rachid Ghezzal and Anthony Lopes, always happy to take responsibility and lead his side when they needed it most – a trait which Wenger will have surely picked up on when assessing his qualities.
There is always room for caution, as there is with any player. He scored ten penalties last season which magnified his statistics slightly, but when you consider that Arsenal missed four in the Premier League alone – confidence from the spot is welcome. Doubts linger over his ‘big game’ record as well, having scored just 16 goals in 41 games against the top four: PSG, Monaco, Nice and Marseille. But after 20 years at his boyhood club, 100 league goals and four major honours, it was time for him to pursue a new challenge. The number nine shirt may have been doomed to others in the past, but curses are there to be lifted. There is a certainty and a consistency to Lacazette’s game that make him more than capable of doing so.