Alexandre Lacazette’s sacrifice lays the ground for Arsenal’s young guns

Midway through the second half at Vicarage Road, with Arsenal leading 3-1 and seemingly cruising out of sight, the ball finally fell to Alexandre Lacazette in space on the edge of the box. After spending much of the previous 57 minutes with his back to goal, harrying and huffing long past his heart’s content, it felt almost unusual to see the Frenchman bearing down on goal without a centre-back draped over his shoulders. For Lacazette, too, it was clearly something of a shock.

What followed was a little like watching an aging boxer who’s begun to question his own punches. Lacazette took a touch to set himself, opened his body to generate force and lashed a left-footed shot towards goal. It all seemed right, a feat of basic instinct, except the ball didn’t just swish through fresh air, it skewed so high and wide of the target it was more like a shank off the first tee on a groggy Sunday morning.

It is something of a paradox that Lacazette, now Arsenal’s undisputed first-choice striker, rarely ever seems as though he’s going to score. After reaching double figures in each of the last four seasons, he has struck just three times in 20 Premier League appearances this campaign. Ordinarily, it would be viewed-and well within reason-as a rather frightening drop-off and the varying pained expressions that follow his shots of him look more like a man condemned to repeatedly stubbing his toe.

But then, perversely, Lacazette’s function in Mikel Arteta’s side isn’t really to score goals at all, and it is hardly a quirk that his own barren run in 2022 has coincided with Arsenal’s metamorphosis into an unnervingly consistent and increasingly assured form. In fact, Lacazette is no more of a conventional striker than Thomas Partey is a master of long-range shooting. Instead, and perhaps above all, what he brings to Arsenal in this guise is a guarantee of absolute sacrifice. You would be hard-pressed to find many players in the Premier League who toil so incessantly, especially when reaping so little joy from that task, as Lacazette makes little effort to disguise.

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After all, no forward spends the night before any match salivating over the prospect of snapping at Craig Cathcart’s heels and yet, such is Lacazette’s doggedness that it has not been uncommon this season for him to be hauled off after running himself into the ground.

But of course, his contribution is far more than spirit, even if it radiates so much more clearly through Arsenal now. Lacazette’s hold-up play against an admittedly poor Watford defense was intelligent and exquisite, constantly occupying the centre-backs, whether by dropping deep or digging elbows, to allow Arsenal’s dynamic and irresistibly skilful trio of Martin Odegaard, Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka all but free rein in the final third.

Arsenal’s first goal was the result of one of Odegaard’s own sumptuous flicks, but Lacazette’s nonchalant backheel to set up Saka for Arsenal’s second was no less spectacular. “As soon as I won it, I found Laca and he knows my movement and where I am,” Saka said afterwards. “It’s so fun to play with him. He put that ball in the perfect spot for me.”

Arsenal celebrate during their victory at Watford

(Arsenal F.C. via Getty Images)

Lacazette’s second assist might not have required as great imagination, as he killed the pace of the ball on the edge of the box with a deft pass that Martinelli then curled into the top corner, but it was executed to no less effect. It also served to epitomize Lacazette’s place of him in this Arsenal side. He is the oldest player in the squad and there is a chemistry, even a kinship, to the way the club’s precious young forwards revolve around him. It shows best on the pitch, but it also comes across in interviews too, particularly in his relationship with Saka, and you never get the sense that Lacazette begrudges his teammates the starlight, even as his own dims of him.

“He will still not be happy in that dressing room because he wants to score, but a lot of the things he does for the team are phenomenal,” Arteta said of the 30-year-old’s performance. “I think he’s had really good moments in terms of goal-scoring records, probably better than what he’s doing right now, but for what we ask of him and for what I ask of him and the contribution that I need from him, I think he’s doing really, really well.”

It is no secret that Arteta wants to sign a big-name forward and there have been few signs that Lacazette’s future lies at Arsenal beyond the summer. In truth, as the club aims to restore and then sustain Champions League status, that is probably the best decision for both parties. Arsenal need a new talisman and Lacazette deserves a last long-term contract. But in the here and now, for the remainder of this season, it is almost impossible to imagine Arsenal thriving like this without him. Lacazette is vital to the system and the morale, even while goals continue to elude him. That he is doing so on a limited lifeline is only testament to a willingness to sacrifice that makes him, at least for Arsenal, far more than an ordinary striker.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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