Arsené Wenger’s decision to drop Alexandre Lacazette a few weeks ago raised a few eyebrows. After all, the Frenchman had only just been signed as the most expensive player in Arsenal’s history, seemingly giving them the number nine they’d lacked ever since the exit of Robin Van Persie.
What was he doing on the bench?
“Lacazette is still in an adaptation phase,” the French coach reasoned after the thumping at the hands of Liverpool. “It's down to the fact the trio finished well the season before and they are used to the big occasions in the Premier League. It's difficult to choose from.” It mattered little to some fans as they slammed Wenger for omitting the former Lyon striker.
It was an understandable position to take. Danny Welbeck might be a useful squad player, but he doesn’t possess the natural finishing instinct of Lacazette. However, Wenger might have had a point. The Frenchman does need to adapt, not only to the Premier League, but his new team, and teammates too.
Stylistically, while Lacazette might bring the sort of goalscoring presence Arsenal need, the rest of the Gunners frontline are unaccustomed to playing with a frontman who likes to position himself as an orthodox number nine. This was most obvious in the 1-0 defeat to Stoke City earlier this month, when Arsenal suffered once again in a familiar torture chamber.
With Lacazette playing as a traditional frontman, Arsenal were reduced to playing long balls forward from deep for the French international to chase. The Gunners aren't famed for this sort of style and they aren't at their best playing in such a way.
Their calm, controlled approach is how they dominate the middle third. The long balls sees them lose the battle in centre of the pitch.
The idea might have been for Welbeck to provide a link between the two lines of midfield and attack, but the England international was frequently drawn out to the left wing, meaning Lacazette was left to battle on his own up front. It was a system that suited neither player. Wenger seemed unsure of how to best use his new striker.
A new fluency
Things were much more fluid against both Bournemouth and against Chelsea last weekend, with Lacazette noticeably changing his game to suit that of the rest of his team. The three at the back system meant that the Frenchman was afforded more freedom to drop deep in the knowledge that there would almost always be options on the overlap.
As we can see from this screenshot of Lacazette’s positioning against Bournemouth, he was asked to involve himself in the play more. Fewer long balls were played forward, with passes played to the feet of Arsenal’s new number nine. This allowed the likes of Mesut Ozil and even Welbeck, who is better suited at turning and running towards goal, to link up much more effectively.
This tactical blueprint set a precedent that was carried into last week’s spirited display against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. It might only have been a point, but there’s a sense that the performance turned in at the home of the champions might prove to be a turning point for the Gunners in their season. Much of that was down to Lacazette.
Just like against Bournemouth, the 26-year-old was keen to drop deep and involve himself in the build-up. On the face of things, this goes against conventional wisdom.
After all, you want your most reliable finisher in the penalty box as often as possible. But by dropping deep, Lacazette can play the ball out to runners beyond him before making his own run into the area, where he excels.
A two-way street
It’s also about other players adapting to the ways of Lacazette. Welbeck seems to be striking up something of an understanding with the Frenchman, as demonstrated in the build-up to Lacazette’s goal in the 3-0 home win over Bournemouth.
With Kolasinac surging down the left flank as a wing back, Welbeck wasn’t so occupied with matters out by the touchline, giving him the chance to link up with Lacazette as more of an orthodox front two. It resulted in the Gunners’ second goal of the afternoon.
Of course, some will point out that it was Wenger’s tactics that needed to adapt rather than the play of Lacazette, but whatever way round it is, the Frenchman is looking more and more comfortable in his new surroundings.
He was signed to be their number nine, but it is becoming apparent to both the player and the club that he must become much more than that.