The Premier League has changed.
Since its inception, the global brand and marketing behemoth that is England’s top flight has been ruled by certain select clubs. Liverpool were there, still a giant of the footballing landscape after their absolute domination of all they surveyed during the 80’s. Chelsea were there, soon to be bankrolled by Abramovich’s oligarch fortune.
And of course, so too were Manchester United. The team taken by Sir Alex Ferguson’s iron clad winning mentality to the Premier League summit and onto European glory, they became the undisputed dominant force in English Football. But there were challengers to their crown, and the original ‘top four’ was completed by an Arsenal side that would themselves flirt with glory and success.
They remain the only team in Premier League history to finish a season undefeated with that famous team of ‘Invincibles’, they have the record for the most F.A. Cup wins with 13, and they cemented themselves in Premier League folklore by becoming United’s, and Ferguson’s, chief tormentors and arch rivals during the early 00’s.
But fast forward to the present day, and football, and society, has changed. The Premier League’s TV rights deals continue to pump further fortunes into a league already bloated by enough riches to put small countries to shame. Unsurprisingly, it has warped the competitiveness of English top flight football. The ‘top four’ has become a ‘top six’ with Tottenham and of course Manchester City joining the clamour for success, and a share of the riches.
Where once Manchester was dominated by Ferguson’s red juggernaut, his retirement has all but ended United’s supremacy, and Guardiola’s blue behemoth now reigns supreme as his side looks on course to win this season’s campaign at a canter.
But then there is the curious case of Arsenal.
From 2005, they went nine years without a trophy, and despite a recent respite of three F.A. Cup wins in the prevailing four years, they missed out on Champions’ League qualification last season for the first time under Arsène Wenger. They currently sit in 6th place, a full five points behind fierce rivals Tottenham, and are on the brink of selling prized asset Chilean forward Alexis Sanchez, although his destination remains unknown despite links to both Manchester clubs.
And after the agony and widespread discord at selling Robin van Persie to United in 2012, who ironically went on to lead the Red Devils to the league title that year, it would fuel further vitriol if such a proud club were to lose their star player to a title winning rival for a second time.
It’s a stance the club should have never had to make. Arsenal still hold a formidable starting XI, and are capable of playing breathlessly beautiful football. The trouble comes, as it always has, when this beauty is not seen nearly enough to make the Gunners consistent title contenders. They have withered in recent years, losing all impetus and cutting edge despite a brief revival in the domestic cups.
Arsène Wenger’s contract stand-off at the end of last season filtered through into all facets of a club that is usually such a well-oiled machine, and indifference and uncertainty festered. It derailed their season and culminated in the club missing out on Champion’s League qualification for the first time.
For a club who prided themselves on that consistent adequacy; the regular revenue and prestige, it was a hammer blow. Their unique selling point for new signings was gone. Their appeal halved.
They needed an injection of momentum, drive and hunger. But with Wenger limping onto another new contract, all that was given was the same tried and tested formula. It reeked of desperation, indecision, or both.
And it’s a situation neatly epitomized by the tribulations of their record signing this summer: Alexandre Lacazette.
Signed for the princely sum of £52m, the long admired Frenchman was supposed to reignite a side on the cusp of stagnating under Wenger’s protracted contract extension. He was to be the gloss on an otherwise talented but inconsistent side which, despite the recent F.A Cup triumphs, has lost much of their vim and vigour.
Working alongside the maverick and explosive talent of Alexis Sanchez, the languid yet sublime Mesut Özil, and garnished by what was supposed to be a fresh determination and steel brought by their recent trophy success, the Frenchman was to lead a deadly new triumvirate and help usher in a new and rejuvenated era at the Emirates.
It was a message to the rest of the Premier League, and indeed Europe: the Gunners were still a force to be reckoned with, they could still attract the best players to English shores despite a lack of Champions’ League football, and more importantly, they still had ample resources in the bank to compete with footballing’s elite, despite a notorious prudence in past years apparently masking their hunger for success. It was a statement, both on and off the field.
Sadly, it hasn’t really worked.
After joining from Lyon in the summer, Lacazette enjoyed a promising start, scoring with almost his very first touch against Leicester City at the Emirates.
His very early form was so good in fact that he was successful in keeping compatriot Olivier Giroud out of the first team picture, and eyes even began looking at the very real prospect of the former Lyon starlet providing Les Bleus with a genuine attacking pedigree to accompany the already world class Antoine Griezmann at this summer’s World Cup.
Lacazette’s London dream however has descended into frustration, disappointment and disbelief as Arsenal continue to stall alarmingly, culminating in their 2-1 defeat at the hands of lowly Bournemouth.
While it still comes far too early to call Arsenal’s record signing an outright flop, with just 10 goals and 3 assists in all competitions this season so far, it is quite clear that their financial outlay came with eyes set on significantly better returns from a player who appeared tailor made for Premier League football and has been long admired by many potential suitors.
An accomplished finisher, Lacazette is quick on his feet, agile, technically proficient and harbours all the trademarks for a top flight striker, especially the kind Wenger himself admires and his Arsenal team has seen flourish before in the likes of Thierry Henry, and to a lesser extent Theo Walcott in brief spells.
But theory and reality are two different things, especially when it centres on a sport as unpredictable as professional football.
And Wenger has admitted with Arsenal’s disappointing league position, poor form and fan discontent, the pressure on his record signing is becoming a hindrance, and the striker’s eight-game goalless streak is becoming problematic.
Speaking to The Guardian Newspaper, Wenger said: “This guy is used to scoring 30 goals per year so, at the moment, even if he says no, I am sure he is frustrated It certainly affects him a little bit but I’m not worried. It will come back and it’s in cycles. At the moment, he’s going through a cycle that is a bit more frustrating for him.”
Indeed, the notoriously punishing physical schedule of the Premier League is something all players must learn to adhere to and adapt to after they make the star studded journey to English top flight football.
But for a player of Lacazette’s ilk, who had spent his entire life and professional career in Lyon in France, such a move would have been particularly jarring in both a professional and personal respect.
All the ability in the world does not necessarily equate to a successful player on the pitch and a happy person off it. As Wenger says:
“It is always a surprise for the players. You accelerate and play more and the body needs to get used to it, the mind as well. It’s a difficult period, the first year, because the family comes over and it’s a bit less football-orientated.”
With this in mind, moving to not only a new club, but a club currently in a state of transition, in a new country with a new culture in the enigmatic London capital, would have been undoubtedly unsettling for the player himself and his family.
One should not underestimate the personal change as well as the professional one. Bigger and better names than the Frenchman have tried their hand in the Premier League and struggled.
And after going nearly 10 hours without a goal in all competitions for Arsenal, and not scoring in eight consecutive games, it is clear the Frenchman is indeed struggling to adapt.
But how fair is it to lay blame squarely on the shoulders of Lacazette, when Arsenal as a team and as a club are currently going through one of their leanest periods in recent years?
As always, the devil lies in the detail.
According to premierleague.com, Arsenal are significantly down on chances created and goals scored compared to their rivals this season. With 47 big chances created and 142 shots on target, they are inferior to both Liverpool (47 big chances created and 151 shots on target) and Manchester City (65 and 167 respectively).
They have also attempted the least amount of crosses so far this season, with 347, than any of their ‘top six’ rivals, and with Lacazette their top scorer with just eight league goals, this is dwarfed again by each of their competitors. Harry Kane tops the charts with 20 goals already, followed by Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah with 18, Raheem Sterling on 14, and even Chelsea’s Alvaro Morata, himself bereft of confidence and form recently, has hit double figures along with United’s Romelu Lukaku.
The stats make even more grim reading when one considers that with six assists, Aaron Ramsey is also the joint lowest provider than any of his nearest rivals, compared to Kevin de Bruyne and Paul Pogba with nine each for City and United. Dele Alli has seven.
To put that into perspective, Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho already managed the same number of assists as Ramsey before he left in a protracted transfer to Barcelona at the start of the month.
While it remains unfair to compare Lacazette, fresh to the Premier League, to players currently riding a wave of momentum and surrounded by seasoned performers, the statistics lay bare Arsenal’s shortfalls this campaign.
They are being outperformed in almost every facet, and while they are creating almost as many chances compared to their rivals, the grim statistics show they are not capitalising nearly as much as they should be.
So how much of this criticism can be aimed at Lacazette? And could anyone have been able to do any better?
Unfortunately, for £52 million, nobody is immune to criticism.
The Frenchman was bought to deliver a focal point of attack, to provide the cutting edge to Arsenal’s often excellent build up play.
And whilst the inevitable settling in period for all new players gives him a certain leeway understandably, and it should be noted with respect that his comfort zone of Ligue 1 is considerably less competitive than the Premier League, it does not excuse the fact that the former Lyon striker is severely underperforming.
One can point to a club in turmoil in his defence, that Arsenal are wholly underperforming in general and it would be incredibly unjust to rest the brunt of the criticism on just one player. But unfortunately for the Frenchman, Arsenal already have compatriot and Les Bleus counterpart Olivier Giroud ready and waiting in the wings to replace him, and history has shown at this level, he can be effective enough to provide the Gunners with the sort of thrust they are currently crying out for.
This wasn’t the plan, however. Lacazette was always meant to be the upgrade, the new model. Relying too heavily on tried and tested methods is what got Arsenal into this situation in the first place.
But the question remains, would reverting back to Giroud make any difference?
History leans in his favour, and the former Montpellier frontman has shown himself a more than competent player at this level on more than one occasion.
Often criticised for his sometimes cumbersome demeanour, Giroud nevertheless possesses sound technique, a strong focal point, and an eye for goal best demonstrated by his nomination for the 2017 Puskas Award for best goal scored for his ‘scorpion-kick’ winner against Crystal Palace in January last year.
When one considers that in 1,617 total minutes of football this season, Lacazette has managed 10 goals and 3 assists in all competitions, whereas his compatriot has recorded 9 goals in the same amount of appearances and just 901 minutes of action, it becomes clear which of the two has been more effective thus far.
And with his last goal coming against United on the 2nd December last year, it is fair to say Lacazette’s position is under genuine threat.
Giroud is experienced at this level, and in this league, and while it would be wrong to assume Lacazette can never regain his previous levels of consistency and form, and even exceed them, it would also be naïve to assume he will return over night to the goal scoring exploits that tempted Arsenal to sign him in the first place.
And what of the World Cup this summer?
Had he maintained his outstanding goal scoring ratio from Ligue 1 into the Premier League, there would be no doubt that his place for Les Bleus would have been assured. Alongside Antoine Griezmann, Lacazette could have formed arguably one of Europe’s finer attacking forces.
The former Lyon forward tipped for big things would have finally come of age and he would have had the perfect platform to prove it.
Unfortunately, with Arsenal looking in very real disarray this season, it looks ever more likely that Lacazette will not be considered to lead the line for France at the 2018 World Cup, on the back of a particularly underwhelming season in North London.
France will not risk their chances on players out of form, or short on confidence when they desperately need a successful campaign to help wipe away the disappointed of their final defeat in the last European Championships on home soil.
And with plenty of forward competition in the shape of Antoine Griezmann, Kingsley Coman, Olivier Giroud, and the mercurial Kylian Mbappé, Les Bleus are not short on alternatives.
Out of form and low on confidence, it was a gamble to move to England the season before the World Cup, one that just has not paid off thus far for the talented striker.
Had Arsenal flourished this season, utilising the Frenchman as the fresh impetus they desperately require to reignite their stuttering recent form, the move would have been hailed as a master stroke and money well spent, especially when one considers what Manchester United spent by comparison to bring Romelu Lukaku to Old Trafford.
As it is, this season may well become one of damage limitation for both Lacazette and Arsenal. Form is fleeting after all, but the second half of the season promises to be even more important for both himself and his club.
If he can regain the kind of form that attracted Arsenal to his signature, he could yet propel the Gunners back into Champion’s League contention, and alongside it reignite his Les Bleus World Cup dream.
It would be no disgrace to lose his place to a seasoned performer in Olivier Giroud, but for a player of Lacazette’s ability, he wold rue the missed opportunity.
All eyes are on him to make sure that doesn’t happen.