On his first day on the job in north London, Unai Emery laid out his ideas in simple terms: "It’s about two things: possession and pressing." At Stamford Bridge this August, then, the Arsenal manager is likely to have been less than impressed with Alexandre Lacazette in the build-up to the game's decisive goal.
The Frenchman gifted possession to Chelsea with a drowsy pass, before letting Eden Hazard sidle past his non-challenge with scandalous ease en route to laying on the winner. A manager who preached two Ps could be forgiven for exploding into Fs and Cs.
It would be unfair to use that passage of play – all five seconds or so of it – as a means to draw any real conclusions about Lacazette’s suitability to his new coach. But it was reflective of a year in English football during which everything hasn't gone entirely to plan for the Frenchman, and the ease with which he dazzled at Lyon has gradually become an uphill struggle.
Lacazette didn't have a terrible first season in England by any means – he may even have had quite a good one – but nor did he make a truly convincing case as starting centre-forward for a team with top-four ambitions. Goalscoring runs at either end of the campaign bookended a midwinter stretch of one goal in 13 and the lasting impression was of a player who, for all his obvious ability, hadn't quite tuned into the same wavelength as his new team-mates.
So far, so unremarkable. After all, adapting to a new city, country and way of working rarely happens overnight. The major complication was something completely out of his control, which arrived in January – in the form of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
It was a faintly puzzling purchase, all things considered. Anyone who had seen Arsenal’s defence at work over the last 10 years or so would have had good reason to see Aubameyang as a needlessly flashy addition to a squad with rather more pressing problems; a £56m silk rug being laid on a cold concrete floor. And Lacazette could be excused for being similarly exasperated at the arrival, after six months on the job, of a centre-forward with style.
Certainly it has created an awkward dynamic: though Lacazette remains a striker of high pedigree, experience and expense, Aubameyang boasts higher pedigree, slightly more experience and was even more expensive. Crucially, he has also been more effective: while Lacazette finished last season having scored 17 times in 39 games, Aubameyang wasted no time notching 10 in 14.
If Lacazette was the shy romcom lead slowly working up the courage to ask the girl on a date, Aubameyang was the confident jock who comes screeching up on his motorbike and steals her from under his nose.
Emery’s go-to man
This has been borne out, albeit across a tiny sample size, in Emery’s team selections this term. The early signs are that the Gabon captain will be the coach’s go-to striker, with Lacazette having made all three of his appearances so far this season from the bench. Asked last week if he has considered fielding two up front, Emery said: “At the moment, no. At the moment, I think we need to have the control with the possession, with the positioning on the pitch, with more players inside.”
Not, on the face of it, a source of great reassurance for Lacazette. Except again, things aren’t quite so straightforward. Firstly there's the idea that the Frenchman, when you look closely, actually appeared galvanised by the competition last season: his goal record after Aubameyang’s arrival reads eight in 11, compared with the nine in 28 that came before.
Add to this that both men can play from the left to good effect, they get on personally, and in their short time spent on the pitch together, there's evidence (Lacazette’s goal at Newcastle last season; Aubameyang’s against Burnley) that they can do real damage as a pairing. Indeed, across the games that one or both appeared in last season following Aubameyang’s arrival, their joint goal tally was a not-too-shabby 18 in 18.
It would hardly be baseless to believe that their combined presence in the team, far from being a mutual hindrance, may actually benefit both.
Set against this is the fact that such a partnership doesn't seems to feature in Emery’s plans. Instead Lacazette, a club-record signing just a year ago, finds himself in the strange situation of being a £46m backup striker, relegated to second choice both justifiably enough and yet through little fault of his own.
He has acknowledged the need for improvement himself after a debut season spent feeling his way in. “I have to be more powerful and be quicker in my decision making,” he said. “It’s harder in England than in France, so I have to take in information quicker.”
Certainly the suspicion remains that Lacazette, an unrelenting goalscorer for Lyon, is sitting on a wealth of untapped resources. Emery might do well to try unearthing them. Because perhaps his two strikers aren’t so much romcom rivals as a buddy-cop pairing: two incompatible mavericks thrown together who, after some fraternal friction, turn out to be an unstoppable team.
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