International breaks: you love them or you hate them. Alexandre Lacazette probably belongs to the former camp, with his late call-up to the France squad coming as a welcome break from domestic proceedings.
All summer, the 24-year-old was one of the most coveted players in Europe. Until the window slammed shut at the end of August, Lyon insisted they would not fold no matter how big the bid, but things have changed. Signs of unrest began to show during pre-season, where Lacazette looked sluggish and uninterested. A back injury didn’t help, but it was clear something was playing on his mind.
Before Lyon’s Champions League game with Valencia, the striker spoke to French newspaper L’Equipe, revealing the details of his protracted contract negotiations. "Maybe things will get better after this interview," Lacazette sighed. "It affects you. You want to think about something else but you just can't."
Goals, goals, goals
It was during the 2013/14 season that the striker enjoyed his breakout year. Stepping up in the absence of Bafetimbi Gomis, he reached double figures for the first time, scoring 15 goals in 36 games.
"I was expecting something [in 2014]," revealed the striker. "I'd just had my best season – I'd really helped the team to get back into the Champions League. He [Aulas] had told me that it was too much after just one full season but that if I backed it up, we could discuss on that basis."
Challenge accepted. A younger, more vibrant Lyon squad played some of the best football in France last year, with Lacazette at the forefront. The forward enjoyed a phenomenal season, with injury the only thing preventing him from getting the three extra goals that would have seen him break the 30-goal mark.
Aulas publicly revealed that he had offered his star a gross salary of €4 million a year; 12 months later, the striker finally agreed to a deal worth €4.2m – but it looks like the damage was already done.
"I would have preferred that he did it just like in any negotiations," continued the striker. "He could have told me 'This is too much'. He should not have used that method that makes me look like someone I'm not."
Lacazette admitted he had even received abuse from his own grandmother when she learned the amount of money he had rejected before eventually signing a deal with the club he has played for since he was 10. That hurt the striker and, from his form and body language, it looks like Aulas has cut him deep.
In the past, Lyon had often been forced to sell their prized assets to balance the books but, unlike the deals that saw Hugo Lloris move to Tottenham and Anthony Martial leave for Monaco, the club is now in a much stronger position. Aulas was quick to make his position clear to anyone that listened. With the opening of the new Stade des Lumières due for January 2016, the extra income and stability of the club meant Les Gones were no longer merely treading water.
Gone are the days when Lyon looked to sign big-money stars; instead, manager Hubert Fournier regularly fielded an XI that contained at least eight members of Lyon’s youth academy. After pushing Paris Saint-Germain close last season, second place confirmed a return to the Champions League and things looked positive in the off-season. Lacazette hadn’t signed a new deal, but team-mates Anthony Lopes, Samuel Umtiti, Corentin Tolisso and Nabil Fekir all put pen to paper. Aulas showed his intention to build a side around his talented youngsters, with Lacazette seen as the jewel in the crown.
It was therefore always extremely unlikely that the striker would leave this summer. Whenever he was asked, the Frenchman refused to fully close the door on a move, shifting the onus onto the club in the knowledge that Lyon would be unable to resist any ridiculous offers.
A parting of ways?
The landscape has changed somewhat since then: come January, the resolve of both club and player may have significantly altered enough to make a deal possible. Regardless of how Lacazette performs over the next three months, there will be substantial interest in his signature.
The summer transfer window showed that the Premier League’s bumper new TV deal means they are able to offer more money than most other clubs, making England the most likely destination.
Both Manchester outfits seem to be happy with what they have up front at the moment, which would appear to rule them out. Meanwhile, even if Liverpool confirm Jurgen Klopp as Brendan Rodgers’ replacement, the Reds are still unlikely to tempt Lacazette given their lack of Champions League football.
Aboard the Eurostar
That leaves one viable contender. Even without signing an outfield player this summer, Arsenal have started the new season well. Their Champions League campaign isn’t exactly going to plan, but that is unlikely to affect any potential move for the French striker: Lacazette has already played in this season’s competition, which would make him ineligible for another club. Nevertheless, Arsene Wenger could see him as the perfect player to breathe life and quality into the second half of the Premier League campaign.
Despite the efforts of Theo Walcott in a central role, Arsenal are in still in need of another striker. Even Wenger, who has been criticised for not making a move for Martial, would surely not let the opportunity to land Lacazette pass him by.
There is no doubt that the player is lacking the same confidence that saw him steamroll Ligue 1 defences last season. Aulas's comments have taken their toll, and the France international has perhaps overstayed his welcome at his boyhood club.
Yet that doesn’t mean he has lost any of the devastating ability. After missing a penalty against Stade de Reims last weekend, Lacazette reacted in the best possible way, firing a shot into the far corner of the net a few minutes later. It wasn’t the cleanest of strikes, but it was exactly what the young forward needed.
His face gave away the joy he felt from getting on the scoresheet – this is a player out to show that he is still one of the hottest talents in Europe. Lyon play Marseille at home a week before the January transfer window closes. No date has been set for the opening of the new stadium. Aulas was determined that Lacazette would be there to help cut the ribbon, but now he might not be so sure.
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