Laca Appreciation

It’s strange how quickly consensus shifts in football. In May 2019, Alex Lacazette was voted Arsenal’s player of the season by Arsenal fans. Fast forward one year and, in my Arsenal bubble at least, the majority would like to see him sold. I don’t sense any hostility towards him; but the club have made a host of poor decisions on contracts and transfers in recent years that don’t need recounting here.

In that context, we have all become amateur squad builders [none more so than myself] as we search for parts that we can sell to fund a rebuild. The club are not inclined to give Lacazette a new deal with two years left to run on his current contract- that tells you they would be totally open to a sale. 29-year old forwards who have endured one of their most frustrating seasons to date are not exactly hot property in a covid depressed market.

In 2018-19, Lacazette scored 13 goals in 35 Premier League appearances [a rate of 0.37 goals per match] and notched eight assists. He totalled 81 shots and 30 were on target. In 2019-20, the Frenchman scored 10 goals in 30 Premier League appearances [0.33 goals per match] and dropped to four assists, taking 52 shots and 26 were on target.

It represents a slight drop in his output but it’s not the sort of decline that explains the journey from fans’ player of the season to prime candidate for the scrap heap. He scored in the first three Premier League games this season and it did little to boost his popularity. He picked up an ankle injury during the Emirates Cup in July 2019 which caused him to miss the last couple of weeks of pre-season and the first two Premier League games.

There is never a good time to get injured; but the last segment of pre-season is pretty much the worst time. He simply never seemed to properly re-establish his rhythm and that task was made more difficult by the dysfunction of the end of Unai Emery’s reign. Arteta has brought clarity to the team and he relies on Lacazette as his centre-forward, yet Laca’s stock hasn’t risen any higher.

In Arteta’s system, Lacazette is asked to drop back towards the centre circle with his back to goal and provide a link to the midfield. Since Özil’s banishment from the squad, Arsenal haven’t had this link between midfield and the attack and that has hurt Lacazette as much as anyone. The attack is very much geared towards finding space for Aubameyang and Laca plays his part in that.

Aubameyang’s stock has risen over the last year, almost inversely to Lacazette’s. Two seasons ago, I wrote a column that asked why ‘pure goal scorers’ like Aubameyang and Aguero are so under valued by pundits and supporters alike. Aubameyang’s profile at Arsenal has expanded rapidly over the last year or so.

He has been made club captain, won Arsenal the FA Cup almost single-handedly and his contract situation resulted in the kind of charm offensive that put greater emphasis on his qualities. While Arsenal collapsed under the ennui of the late Wenger era and the confusing fug of Emeryism, Auba just kept scoring goals.

Lacazette won a great deal of his popularity for his work rate which, to my eyes at least, has not evaporated. He still works incredibly hard. I wonder if the lack of fans in stadiums has diminished the importance of his work rate- “grafting” is a quality that is enormously valued by stadium crowds. An air of competitiveness and aggression envelopes a stadium crowd and, with the anxious energy curdling inside you, one lives vicariously through the players. You want them to exorcise you of your nervous energy by doing what you would do- run around a bit.

In front of cavernous arenas with piped in crowd noise, there is no roar of approval when a striker closes down a defender. The lack of a visceral reaction has probably skewed our impression of these qualities. There again, you could easily argue that stadium crowds over-value the expression of raw energy and that, stripped of the emotional backdrop, we are evaluating it in its proper context now.

As much as Aubameyang’s increased status and the lack of an adoring Emirates crowd are factors in Lacazette’s declining status, there are simpler explanations in my view. Arsenal signed Aubameyang six months after they signed Laca for one simple reason; in a one striker system, the Frenchman isn’t prolific enough to hang your hat on as a goal scorer for a full season.

Lacazette is more foil than talisman. He isn’t an absolute killer in front of goal. He took an average of 1.7 shots per game last season. Auba took 2.6 per game and Pepe 1.6. One of my chief frustrations with Alex is his ‘goldilocks’ approach to shooting- he tends not to pull the trigger unless everything is juuuust right. If XG has taught us anything, it is that volume should be the aim of every striker- you miss 100% of the shots that you don’t take, as Wayne Gretzky put it.

I think one of the principal issues for Lacazette has been the change in personnel in attack. For all of the talk of Pepe, Aubameyang and Lacazette mimicking Liverpool’s Salah, Mane Firmino triumvirate, it just hasn’t worked that way for Arsenal. The qualities of the three players don’t blend in anything approaching the same way.

Lacazette was more useful when Mesut Özil and Aaron Ramsey were catalysts for the way Arsenal attacked. Laca and Özil had a nice on-pitch relationship, because the striker was happy to move away from the front line and play those nice one-touch passes that Özil likes. Remember Mesut’s goal against Liverpool in December 2017?

Playing with Ramsey made sense for Lacazette for the same reason- when he came away from the front line to knit the play together, Ramsey would happily make the second man run and fill the centre-forward space for him. Now the majority of Arsenal’s attacks are concentrated through wide areas with no notable presence between the lines. That means most of Lacazette’s grafting near the centre circle is less eye catching.

There are no central attacking figures for him to combine with, his job is to funnel the ball out wide- as he did in the build-up to Aubameyang’s opener in the FA Cup semi-final. Even after this nice piece of link-play, Laca doesn’t benefit from Pepe’s delivery- which Aubameyang hoovers up at the back post instead.

Sometimes a club moves beyond the need for a player and I think that is what has happened with Arsenal and Lacazette. I wonder if, in his idle moments, the Frenchman regrets moving to Arsenal, where he has been unable to establish himself internationally. Maybe playing in Diego Simeone’s hard-working Atleti side would have been more suited to him.

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