One year ago, Arsene Wenger opted against paying big money for Alexandre Lacazette to secure a cut-price deal for Lucas Perez. He wagered that the Spaniard would provide more value than the Lyon star, who at the time would have cost around €40m.
The fact that Lacazette has since signed for Arsenal for a club record fee, while Lucas has been quietly ushered towards the exit door, is a clear admission that this particular gamble did not come off.
The writing appears to be on the wall for Lucas at Arsenal. Having been a largely peripheral figure in the second half of last season, he has now been left at home for the tour of Australia and China.
To add insult to injury, he has even seen his squad number (nine) handed to Lacazette. Lucas has been temporarily rehoused at No. 28, but it’s clear Wenger does not expect him to be with the club for much longer.
Some will point to the fabled curse of that number nine. The shirt will weigh heavy upon Lacazette, with a string of strikers having failed to do it justice. However, Lucas is not an abject failure like Park Chu-Young, or an underwhelming flop like Julio Baptista. He’s a capable player, who largely impressed when called upon, yet couldn’t seem to force his way regularly into Wenger’s plans.
The manager must take a measure of responsibility for that. Lucas’ best performances were rarely rewarded with a run in the team.
He opened his Gunners account with a brace against Nottingham Forest in the EFL Cup, but didn’t even get off the bench for the following Premier League game. He starred in January’s 5-0 win over Southampton in the FA Cup, but was benched for the following game. Even when he bagged a hat-trick in his first ever Champions League start against Basel, Lucas did not play a single minute of Arsenal’s 3-1 win over Stoke City a few days later.
It’s difficult to decipher precisely what caused Wenger to doubt Lucas. Perhaps he was a bit of a panic buy – having failed in their public pursuits of Jamie Vardy and Lacazette, Arsenal were under enormous pressure to deliver a new striker.
Lucas was an expedient deal at a relatively low cost. It’s possible his addition was primarily cosmetic, designed to appease an increasingly agitated fanbase.
There may also have been a stylistic issue. Although an intelligent striker with good movement, Lucas was not a particularly dynamic forward. In fact, he tended to fare better when playing off the flanks, when he could receive the ball into feet facing the goal.
Over the course of 2016/17, Wenger appeared to become convinced he needed a striker constantly willing to work the channels, and Alexis Sanchez and Danny Welbeck were ultimately better suited to that task. Wenger thought he’d bought a Vardy, but ended up with something more in the mould of a Robert Pires.
In a squad crowded with support strikers, Lucas was always going to struggle.
It’s fitting in some ways that Lucas has now taken No. 28 – the shirt was last worn by Joel Campbell, another who impressed fleetingly without ever seeming to fully convince Wenger.
Although players who arrived at different stages of their career, for vastly different fees, Campbell and Lucas both illustrate Wenger’s willingness to take a punt in the transfer market. He would have regarded them as relatively low-risk purchases who could have proved a masterstroke. Instead, they both appear set to be consigned to the history books.
This summer, Wenger has pushed the boat out to secure Lacazette. He was probably mindful that another summer of dithering could lead to another Lucas-like compromise deal.
It seems the Spaniard was only ever really intended as a stop-gap – perhaps that is the true reason Wenger never saw fit to invest time embedding him into his team.
Can Lacazette break the curse of the no.9? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.