Arsenal embrace transfer market realities with Lacazette signing

Like most Arsenal signings, or any key decision concerning the club, the signing of Alexander Lacazette for a club record 52.7 million pounds(reaching 60 mn with add-ons) has divided opinion amongst the Gunners faithful. While some of the scepticism over Lacazette’s ability to take Arsenal to the next level is understandable, the visceral nature of divide on social media regarding the French striker’s signing is, and there is no other way to put it, Arsenal-esque.

Lacazette signs for Arsenal

Image Courtesy:Getty Images

But, the signing of Lacazette needs to be seen in the context of Arsenal’s moves in the transfer market following their FA Cup win & the bullish narrative pushed by the club after giving Arsene Wenger another two years at the helm of the club. Having slipped out of the Champions League spots for the first time in 20 years, Arsenal CEO Ivan Gazildis promised fans that there would be no restrictions on money available to the manager to reshape the squad.

Having signed Saed Kolasinic- who was voted into the Bundesliga team of the year- from Schalke on a free transfer, Arsenal seemed to up the stakes by pursuing Kylian Mbappe- the hotshot 18-year old from Monaco who is one of the most exciting prospects in world football & whose style of play bears a striking resemblance to Gunners legend Thierry Henry. With reports emerging from French media of a possible transfer fee in excess of £100 mn & Arsene Wenger personally trying to persuade Mbappe’s parents, it seemed Arsenal were not just talking the talk but walking the walk too.

In between, there were rumours that Arsenal were after Antony Martial too. In the context, the signing of Lacazette may feel a little underwhelming. In the era of unbelievable French attacking talent featuring the likes of Griezmann, Martial & Mbappe the pursuit of Lacazette by a manager known for unearthing young French talent feels a bit tepid.

Also, one has to consider the age profile of Lacazette. This is no Thierry Henry-like signing. A 26-year old with a decent, but not prolific, goal scoring record in a decent league, the Frenchman would be expected to hit the ground running. In Lacazette, Arsenal are buying, more or less, a finished article. This is not Wenger signing a precocious talent(like Mbappe or Fabregas) and shepherding him through ups & down on the way to greatness.

But the fact that Arsenal seemed to have a backup plan in place is in itself commendable for a club that seemed to lack a coherent plan in the transfer market for the last couple of years. With the signing of Lacazette, Arsenal have embraced the reality of a dearth of top-quality strikers in the transfer market and chosen the next best alternative commensurate with their budget.

The Giroud conundrum

Given that Arsenal fans have been calling for a world class striker for many seasons, it is important to see the signing of Lacazette in the context of the market situation and Arsene Wenger’s handling of Olivier Giroud.

With 98 goals in 5 seasons, Giroud has been an excellent value for money signing for Arsenal. It is important to remember that he cost just £12 mn when he signed 5 years ago. But, since his signing, it has been quite clear that Arsene Wenger has always seen him as a back up striker - a plan B when things don’t work out.

In 2013, a year after his signing, Arsene Wenger pursued the signing of Gonzalo Higuain to add some much needed pace to the front-line which looked sluggish in 2012–13. When that pursuit proved unsuccessful, Wenger turned his attention to Luis Suarez with his now infamous £40mn+1 bid that raised the heckles at Anfield.

Having signed Özil, Arsenal had to make-do with the Frenchman.

Next season, Alexis Sanchez was signed from Barcelona.In Arsenal’s first away match of the season at Goodison Park, Arsenal started with the Chilean up top.By half-time, Everton were 2–0 up & Sanchez looked blunt in the striker’s role. Arsene Wenger brought on Giroud, he duly scored a brace & Sanchez was moved to the left for the rest of the season.

It was only last season that Wenger mustered enough courage, and conviction, to play Alexis Sanchez as a true striker, consigning Giroud to the bench for a majority of the first half of the campaign as Özil & Sanchez built a symbiotic relationship purring Arsenal’s attack.

Even then, Arsene always seemed to be on the lookout for opportunities to blood Giroud into the team, inducting the Frenchman into the starting XI during the Christmas period even as the attack seemed to lose fluency with him at the top. Much of this seemed to centre on the fact that Wenger did not want a sulking Giroud on the bench. The Handsome French Bloke(as he is referred to by Arsenal fans) seemed irritated by the lack of playing time and his manager duly obliged- sometimes to the detriment of the team.

It would be interesting to see Giroud’s next move. With Lacazette’s signing, Wenger is clearly indicating that he prefers pace upfront. Both these strikers have similar goal scoring records and are better goal-scorers than Danny Welbeck who started the FA Cup final ahead of Giroud.

As Tim Stillman writes here, Giroud slows down Arsenal’s attacking play even though his lack of pace is compensated by his brilliant combination play. Given that he is a bonafide starter in the French national team, he may not settle for curtailed playing time in a World Cup year- especially when one considers the attacking talent at the French team’s disposal.

After years of dillydallying, Arsene Wenger seems ready to let go of Giroud

Arsenal’s new 3–5–2/3–4–2–1 and the Lacazette’s suitability

One of the striking features of Arsenal’s play after shifting to three at the back(either in a 3–5–2 or a 3–4–2–1) at the end of last season was not just the solidity it seemed to offer in defence(instead, as @7amkickoff explains in this piece Arsenal continued to concede big chances even after shifting to a back three) but the fluid, structured nature of attacks it seemed to induce.

The formation worked especially well when Danny Welbeck played as the striker flanked by Alexis and Ozil as the inside-left & inside-right respectively. With Welbeck capable of running off a defender’s shoulders & also adept at dropping deep, linking up play with midfield, Arsenal are much closer to the fluid side that Wenger desires.

The formation does not work so well with Giroud upfront instead of Welbeck as the Frenchman does not offer the “running off a defender’s shoulder” that the latter offers. Giroud offers predictability and this was in evidence when Tottenham easily sussed out Arsenal’s new formation at White Hart Lane last season. But Welbeck’s problem is his finishing and he blows hot and cold in front of goal.

With Lacazette, Arsenal are hoping to overcome the shortcomings of Giroud and Welbeck. Although not explosive, Lacazette has the pace to keep the opposition defence on its toes, can drop deep to link up play and convert the chances that come his way.

If Alexis and Ozil do stay, he might complement both these players perfectly whilst benefiting from their creative potential. Since 2013–14, he has scored more than 22 goals in every season and is, at the age of 26 and coming off a 37-goal season, reaching the peak of his career.

As this excellent StatsBomb piece written last season explains in detail, this is a striker who has grown in stature season after season, improved in every aspect since 2013–14 and may well surprise doubters as he struts his stuff in the red & white of Arsenal.

Bonus: Some numbers showing how clincial Lacazette is in front of goal(does not include penalties)