by Matthew Wade
With the usual summer links to Higuain and Cavani, and rumours now extending to Lacazette, do Arsenal actually need another striker? And if so, who?
With the continued improvement of Olivier Giroud, the industry and physical gifts of Danny Welbeck, the work rate and technique of Sanchez and of late the pace and instinctive finishing of Theo Walcott, Arsenal certainly have a range of options in up front.
On paper, at least. We all know that when he returns from his enforced post Copa America rest, Sanchez will start on the left. Walcott may yet be primarily required on the right, assuming he renews his contract and stays with the club. Welbeck likewise seems cover for both wide positions, and hasn’t exactly shown a clinical touch.
As such, Giroud remains the obvious first choice front man. Judging by last seasons’ exploits in front of goal and contributions to retaining possession, we could do a lot, lot worse.
That said, the muscular Frenchman does not tick all the boxes. Theo’s end of season cameo reminded us of how limiting a lack of pace up front is on our tactical flexibility. In addition, for all his improvement, Giroud remains excellent at converting on certain types of opportunities, and can be wasteful with others. There is also the more prosaic fact that his excellent contributions of the last 18 months have been largely the result of a playing style that requires an immense amount of physical effort, not to mention being on the receiving end of a fair amount of physical abuse. It’s no coincidence that for three years in a row he has run out of steam a little as the season’s end approaches. And a tired Giroud is a much less effective player.
Danny Welbeck appears to be the primary rotation option for the lone striker role. But for all his willing, speed and under-appreciated strength and technique, he has much to prove. ‘Dat Guy Welbz’ seems to ‘nearly’ score more than any Arsenal striker since the post seeking legend that was Kaba Diawara. He seems to have all the tools, but when presented with a chance, one is never confident of him taking it. He also suffers from one of the consequences of being shunted to the flanks so often – he is actually too unselfish. The positional change has also instilled in him an instinct to often make the less dangerous run, as if supporting another striker. Not in a Chamakh sense of occasionally actively avoiding goalscoring positions, but his predatory instincts do seem to ebb and flow.
Like many, I hope he can turn it around, as his attitude makes you want him to do as well as he has the potential to do, but at this stage it’s hard to know if he can become a top Premier League front man or a merely remain a valuable utility forward.
Arsene Wenger’s brief experiment with Alexis as a lone striker ended fairly quickly, and given his incredible impact on the left wing, I would suggest he should only play up front in an emergency.
Theo Walcott, on the other hand, put the cat well and truly among the pigeons with his astonishing performance against West Brom and wonderfully taken opener in the cup final.
Although the Baggies were definitely in end of season mode at the Emirates, Walcott Could have easily grabbed five were it not from two top draw saves from the under siege Boaz Myhill. What was most impressive was the variety. An unstoppable instinctive strike from a wide angle was followed by a neat toe poke after creating space for himself nimbly in the box. Shortly after his poachers tap-in for his hat trick, he was denied after running at the defence the from picking up the ball in a deep lying target man position. He occupied the channels fantastically well, and his intelligent movement made space for others, stretching the midfield. His cup final performance was less eye-catching, and it is notable that he scored after briefly moving wide, but he still created a lot of space for his team-mates and took his goal fantastically.
That said, despite a decent record when he has, Walcott has still only started a handful of games up front in his Arsenal career, and hadn’t always been convincing. We all know about his capacity to disappear, and there is no doubt that his impact is limited against two deep banks of four. There is also the fairly basic fact that for all his nimbleness, holding possession when isolated up top is never going to be a strength of a 5″9, 11 stone career wide forward. And of course there are two other fundamental factors. Depending on the uncertain fitness of The Ox and whether Ramsey can get back into his preferred central role, Walcott may well be needed out wide. Equally, despite all the positive noises, the two parties may yet not find accord as far as his contract extension is concerned.
This leaves Arsenal with a forward line of varied gifts, but with some questions, and lacking in the world class striker we all crave. On the plus side, the manager can choose his horses for each course as it comes, affording valuable tactical flexibility. In the negative column, which of them would make the difference in a game against Chelsea or in the latter stages of the Champions League?
It is for this reason that the club is endlessly linked with goal getters from around the continent. The sense that without a Henry or Ian Wright, Arsenal will never have more than a puncher’s chance against the very best. With money in the bank, a relatively settled squad, and the departures of Podolski and seemingly Campbell, as well as Sanogo leaving on loan, there does seem to be a large striker shaped hole in the 2015/16 squad.
As ever, the problem is that it’s just not quite that simple! As the boss has pointed out, there isn’t exactly a myriad of options available that would present an obvious step up. Top quality strikers are as at much of a premium as ever at the moment, and those clubs that have them aren’t keen to sell unless they have to.
The club went after Lewandowski before he chose Bayern, and there is precious little chance of getting hold of him now. Benzema has been a long term target, but players don’t tend to leave Real Madrid unless pushed. Barcelona certainly won’t be parting with their front three. Atletico no longer need to sell anyone. And Zlatan, despite being a mad genius, seems to have no interest in moving to London. Equally Rooney, Costa, Kane and Aguero are off the market.
Of the top 25 in Europe’s ‘golden shoe’ ranking, weighting scorers by goals and strength of competition, that rules out ten. Five of the others are aging target men or second strikers, such as the ever-remarkable Luca Toni, joint top scorer in Serie A at 38. Of the remaining 10, there are two in Austria (led by Jonathan Soriano with almost a goal a game in three seasons in Salzburg, and precious few for any other first teams at 29), two over 30’s in Portugal, an Israeli domestic star, and a 28 year old previously underachieving Spanish winger who has signed for Porto on a free. That leaves four names. Gonzalo Higuain, Alexandre Lacazette, Mauro Icardi and Charlie Austin. Notice the absence of Cavani.
Despite a great season, I think it would be a stretch to say that Charlie Austin offers more or much variation from Olivier Giroud, bar shooting from range. If other clubs didn’t share the same doubts, he’d have been snapped up already with Q.P.R. going down. Ex-Barca youth teamer Mauro Icardi is a highly talented two footed poacher with truly world class movement, but is not the style of striker that normally flourishes in England, and in any case has just signed a new four year contract extension. He’s also a bit of an outspoken wild card.
Which takes us back to the old favourites and the new pretender.
Edinson Cavani seems to have been trying to get out of Paris since Zlatan arrived. A little marginalised by the indomitable Swede, he still manages a goal every other game largely playing wide as part of a front three, and it’s hard to discount his extraordinary goalscoring record for Napoli. He’s got the physique to play as a target man, and the pace to stretch defences, and can be an explosive finisher. For all his qualities, he is something of a flat track bully in domestic football, yet in European competition, his record against top opponents is more impressive. He would undoubtedly improve the Arsenal squad, but there is a problem. With Manchester United and others sniffing about, and PSG keen to recoup their investment, fees in the region of £45-55m have been suggested, which no matter how you slice it is a lot for someone who would be nearer their 29th birthday than their 28th come the start of the season, particularly for one who may need time to adapt to the English game. To me he seems like a Manchester United or Manchester City type signing. High quality, big impact, but with gargantuan wages and minimal resale value.
Gonzalo Higuain has been linked with the club every five minutes since Napoli apparently gazumped us for his services in 2013. Even their president seems open to the idea of selling him to Arsenal, as long as he makes his customary huge profit. A year younger with Cavani with a similar goals record, Higuain clearly knows how to hit the back of the net. Similarly to the Uruguayan, the victims of his exploits are more impressive in Europe than in the League, bar five years ago in Spain. Accordingly the problems are similar. Napoli president Aurelio de Laurentiis is well known for squeezing every last drop of cash out of a transfer, and Higuain’s wages would be pretty spectacular too. Another factor is that, despite paper talk, he seems perfectly happy in Italy, thank you very much. One thing that puts me off him as a striker is that he has a remarkably bad penalty record in recent years, and has made a habit of missing gilt-edged chances in big games for Argentina. I don’t know if this suggests a lack of intestinal fortitude or not, but it gives me pause, especially at the likely price.
The new name to this party is Alexandre Lacazette of Lyon. Seemingly linked for being French, young, potentially reasonably priced (at £25m-ish), and favourite-ing a tweet suggesting Arsenal might buy him. With a career path very much on an upward curve, and 31 goals in 38 games last season, winning Ligue 1 player of the year, he certainly seems like a good option. Having just turned 24, and having scored his first goal for France, his value is only likely to increase, boosting the economic argument. He is clearly the most Arsenal-esque of the big name options. For those that don’t know much about him, he started as a striker before being converted to a winger, and was compared to former Lyon forward Sonny Anderson. In the last two years he moved centrally again, and the goals have started flowing. As such his career trajectory is definitely reminiscent to a poor man’s Thierry Henry. However, at 5″9 his stature is much more akin to that of Theo Walcott. Stylistically he is sort of a cross between both with a large dollop of Sylvain Wiltord. There is no doubt that he could do well for Arsenal, with his roving style and ability to run from deep complementing many in the current squad. But my immediate question would be; is there room for both him and Walcott? Does he bring enough qualities that Arsenal lack?
And to be honest, I can’t make up my mind.
Have a look at this video and see what you think.
And if not Lacazette, who? Maybe even Chuba Akpom? Answers on a postcard to…(or more accurately in the comments section below)…