by Tony Wyman
Like Lucy Van Pelt (no relation to Scott that we know of) – promising Charlie Brown she won’t pull the football out from under him, Arsenal has teased Gunners supporters for years with the promise of assembling a front line of world class strikers. Every year, Gooners bite and every year Arsenal pulls the football away.
Names like Gonzalo Higuain, Karim Benzema and, most famously, Luis Suarez, have been linked with moves to Arsenal over the years. But, instead of those top flight scorers, Arsenal signed second tier forwards like Danny Welbeck and Lucas Perez, both, admittedly, solid players, but men who scored just three goals for Arsenal last season, compared to the 95 netted by Higuain, Benzema (who had an off-year, scoring only 17 times) and Suarez.
The North London team stumbled last season, finishing fifth, the first time they finished out of the top four in the English Premier League in 20 years, failing to qualify for the Champions League and the lucrative payout that comes with being one of the top European teams competing in the tournament.
Missing out is likely to cost the Gunners £50 million, money they could have spent on top talent that would have helped them finished above rivals Liverpool and Manchester City, both finishing just one win ahead of Arsenal.
Manager Arsene Wenger failed to sign a top striker last year, banking on goals from talisman Alexis Sanchez, who scored 24, model-handsome Olivier Giroud, who put 12 in, largely coming off the bench, and speedster Theo Walcott, who scored 10 in another injury-ridden season where he missed 10 matches due to a calf and hamstring knock.
Instead of adding shooters to his line-up, Wenger bought defensive players. He added German Shkrodran Mustafi (£34.85m), a center defender; defensive center midfielder Granit Xhaka (£38.25m); and, young center defender Rob Holding (£2.55m), perhaps the best buy Wenger has made since he bought 20-year-old Patrick Viera from Italian side AC Milan for £4.55m in 1996.
A fairly convincing argument can be made that Wenger’s investment in defenders didn’t pay off. His team dropped to sixth in least goals given up (44) from third (36) in each of the two previous seasons. And while the team increased the number of goals they scored from 65 in ’15/’16 to 77 last year, they went from tied for fourth most the previous year to fifth in the league last season.
Arsenal managed that improvement when the entire league scored more goals, 1064 in ’16/’17 vs 1026 in ’15/’16. Holding may turn out to be the best buy any manager made in the Premiership all last season, but failing to add to Arsenal’s offensive power cost the team a top four finish. And it may end up costing them Alexis Sanchez, who is threatening to leave the team.
Sanchez, normally a left-winger, moved to the center forward role early in the season when injuries to both Giroud and Welbeck, both big, strong players, forced Wenger to shift the much smaller Chilean to the target player role. The Gaffer had tried Walcott in that role the year before and learned the speedster wasn’t suited for the position.
Lucas, the new player, might have been a more likely candidate, being 5’11” compared to Sanchez’ 5’7″, but Wenger never seemed to have confidence in the Spaniard, playing him mostly in FA Cup matches against weaker opponents. And while Sanchez did well in the role, he never seemed completely comfortable there, often drifting out of position in matches, searching out space in which he could play, rather than to stand up with his back to the goal as a target.
Wenger, an economist by education, has a long history of refusing to splash large sums for players, even when supporters and his players seem to back such a move. The perfect example of Wenger’s frugality is when he offered Liverpool £1 more than the £40 million release clause in Luis Suarez’s contract. (Barcelona paid an estimated £65 million).
Suarez would have made an immediate impact on Arsenal, had Wenger signed him. The Uruguayan scored 25 goals in his first season with Barcelona in ’14-’15, the year after Arsenal refused to shell out the required transfer fee, and amassed an enormous 40 goals in ’15-’16, the year Arsenal finished second to upstart Leicester City and scored only 65 goals as a team.
But now, in what might be the late years of manager Arsene Wenger’s time with the club (he just signed a two-year extension in May of this year, adding to his career with the club that started in 1996), he appears to be willing to break the bank to sign a real world class striker in Alexandre Lacazette, the Lyon forward who scored 37 goals last season.
The Telegraph reported recently that Lacazette is in England undergoing a physical before the £52 million deal is closed. The sum would be a record fee paid by Arsenal, dwarfing the £39.95 million they paid Real Madrid for midfield talisman Mesut Ozil during the ’13/’14 season and the £38.25 million they paid for defensive center midfielder Grant Xhaka last year.
The most the club had ever paid for a striker before was £17 million they paid Manchester United for often-injured Danny Welbeck. (Gunner’s legend Thierry Henry went for a paltry £13.69 million in 1999, which, in today’s pounds is the equivalent of £22.35 million today.)
Lacazette is exactly what Arsenal needs, especially if they want a chance to hold on to Sanchez and Ozil, both players about to enter the last year of their contracts. Finishing out of the Champions League was a big blow to Arsenal’s chances of keeping those players, but bringing in a proven goal scorer like Lacazette could entice the two superstars to stay.
Of course, Arsenal risk losing them both on a free transfer if the club doesn’t sell them this year. But Wenger has indicated he’s willing to risk that to have a shot at winning the Premiership next season.
The French striker could be the man who can make that dream a reality. Lacazette, who is only 26, scored 37 goals last season, including 28 in 28 League 1 goals for fourth place Lyon. He’s a brilliant finisher who loves to dribble and who has the strength to hold the ball in traffic.
While he isn’t 6’4″ tall like Giroud, he has the physical strength and durability to survive and thrive in the rough world in front of the goal in the English Premier League.
Arsenal fans will be holding their breath and anxiously awaiting confirmation the Gunners have put pen to paper with Lacazette and hoping his addition is enough to keep their other stars at home for one more glorious run at a title that has escaped them since their storybook 2003-4 when they won the Premier League without defeat, the first team to win the top flight of English football undefeated since Preston North End did it in 1889.