First it was Karim Benzema, then Gonzalo Higuaín, and then it was Luis Suárez. For the better part of the past decade, summers in North London have been characterized by dalliances with world-class strikers that devolved into agreements for cut-rate options like Danny Welbeck, Yaya Sanogo, and Olivier Giroud. With Arsenal’s performance continually hovering around the not-quite-good-enough-to-win-it-all level, the thinking was that, for anything to ever change, Arsenal needed to suck it up and finally invest a record amount of money into the sport’s premium position.
They finally did — but it might be too late.
At a fee of £52.7 million, Alexandre Lacazette arrives from Lyon as Arsenal’s benchmark signing. The 26-year-old is coming off a Ligue 1 season in which he scored 28 goals and recorded three assists.
Lacazette has put together some impressive production over the past three years — he hasn’t dipped below 24 goals-plus-assists since the 2013–14 campaign — but it’s production that Arsenal missed out on. Back in 2014, Arsène Wenger and Co. could’ve nabbed him for about a quarter of his 2017 price. He’s on a five-year deal, and the majority of that could be for his decline years. It seems wild, but 26 is right around when strikers start to drop off — and Lacazette has always been the kind of defense-stretching deep threat that won’t be as likely to fight off the age curve as an in-the-box poacher.
Not-as-good-as-last-year Lacazette is still good — he had the third-highest domestic goal-scoring rate in Europe last season — but even those numbers look better than they are, as he scored 10 penalties in 2016–17. Plus, he doesn’t shoot anywhere near as often as the top strikers in the world: Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani, and Gonzalo Higuaín are all above four shots per 90 minutes; Lacazette is barely above three, putting him below Paul Pogba, who’s a midfielder. Without that kind of robust shot volume, the goal-scoring numbers are always more likely to fall off.
None of that would matter, though, if Lacazette were just an addition to Arsenal’s squad from last year. But with each passing day, it’s looking more and more likely that the team’s two best goal scorers from 2016–17 are on their way out. Alexis Sánchez, whose pending exit has been a clubwide existential crisis going on a year now, matched Lacazette’s non-penalty goal numbers across domestic and continental play last year — despite playing in a tougher league and not playing all of his minutes in a central role. Meanwhile, Giroud, who has never really garnered the kind of respect his goal-scoring record deserves and who could be on his way to Everton or West Ham, scored at a higher rate than Lacazette last year once you strip out the penalties. If the club’s record signing becomes the center of the team’s attack, it’s unlikely they’ll see much improvement on last year’s attacking results.
And if they don’t find a way to get better, they’ll be on the outside of the Champions League places looking in for the second year running. They finished fifth, but their underlying numbers were a ways behind the other five teams in the top six. If you traced back the etymology of this truism, you’d probably find your way to Arsenal: The more things change, the more they stay the same.