Alexandre Lacazette isn’t the first foreign forward trying to make an impression in Arsenal shirt. But he should remember that he’s got a mountain to climb: out of the last five, big-name Gunners’ strikers in 21st century, only one left London with the status of a legend under his belt. Whichever sixth story ‘Laca’ is about to write next season, it better be different than the four we’ve witness over the last thirteen years. The weight is all on his shoulders: he cost more than the four of his predecessors combined…
3 August 1999 – Thierry Henry signs from Juventus (£11m)
Young Arsenal fans will remember this date purely as an opening chapter of their clubs’ glory. On the other hand: older Gooners, especially those with good memory, will also remember the stench of uncertainty behind the 1999 transfer window. After all, their team was just getting rid of Nicolas Anelka. The French forward, who was barely 20 at the time and already was earning a ‘wonderkid’ label by becoming AFC’s top Premier League goalscorer as well as winning the PFA Young Player of the Year award. And right after doing that, he was leaving. For Madrid. With no adequate replacement for Gunners to fall back on.
At the end of the day, the hectic transfer session saw Arsène Wenger signing not one, but two new forwards. Veteran Davor Šuker, still walking in glory of World Cup’s Golden Boot winner and the reputation of Real Madrid’s forward, looked like a safe bet in a short-term perspective. Along with him, a 22-years Juventus flop would arrive – a player, by that point, mainly interested in reviving his career after having it in a freezer for 6 months; a player, mainly interested in not spending any more time of his life trying to become a winger. At Highbury, Thierry Henry had to restart his career from the scratch.
We all know what happened afterwards. Six trophies for Gunners. Six consecutive Team of the Year appearances for their top scorer. Arsenal’s first-ever Champions League final earned thanks to the #9’s spectacular, solo run at Santiago Bernabeu, against Real Madrid. The crazy goalscoring rivalry between Highbury’s fan favourite and Manchester United’s Ruud van Nistelrooy. The floating masterpiece scored into the back of Fabien Barthez’s net; or the other one, backheeled past both Jon Fortune and Dean Kiely against Charlton in 2004. Countless individual accolades for the man in question…
That fella Šuker never stood a chance there.
17 May 2004 – Robin van Persie signs from Feyenoord (£2.75m)
Curiously enough, Robin van Persie’s first appearance in the red shirt marked the end of Arsenal’s golden days. Entering the team of freshly crowned Invincibles with Henry in his peak form, the Dutchman witnessed a steady decline, as Gunners would prove themselves unable to keep up the pace with José Mourinho’s Chelsea and then, repeatedly watch Manchester United stealing the spotlight. At the age of 21, the Dutchman was nowhere near Henry’s level of maturity; he needed a lot of time to adjust – his maiden season in England resulted with only 5 Premier League goals and one assist in 26 appearances.
The difference between The Master and The Apprentice has become even more astounding later on. It took 68 games across three season for RvP to match Henry’s 17-goal quota the Frenchman has accomplished in his maiden EPL campaign. Even after the ex-Monaco and Juventus forward left the building, van Persie would continue to struggle with his goalscoring mojo: he needed no less than two more seasons filled with disappointments and injury problems, before he finally broke the 15-goal barrier in the league. Title race? Champions League glory? Forget it: past the year 2006, that was out of the window for good.
Ironically, the late-blooming RvP has hit his best form just in time to get bored of London and betray the Gooners. After spending eight years in-between physio rooms and English pitches, after being given nearly infinite credit of trust by both the manager and the fans, after leading his club exactly nowhere – he turned his back at British capital and chose the arch-rivals from Manchester instead. To make things even worse: immediately after that, he’s won the domestic title for Red Devils with a career-record goal tally to his name. By having hand on 41 (!) MU goals in 38 matches, he’s surpassed the loot from his initial 95 (sic!) league appearances across the first five seasons in Arsenal’s shirt.
In this story, RvP will always be a villain – even if he’s already paid the price for his sins.
3 February 2009 – Andrey Arshavin signs from Zenit (£14m)
This would surely count as one of the most tedious transfer sagas in history. In February 2009, Arshavin had to beat an angry former club, a transfer deadline and an English snowstorm just to finally taste some overseas football at a tender age of 27. That mess of a move, which involved even such minuscule details like Zenit’s demand of players’ loyalty bonuses being paid back, has earned Arsenal a new, quality forward. It was proven eleven weeks later, when Gunners were visiting the high-flying Liverpool. At Anfield, the Russian would score four goals, depriving the hosts of fourth consecutive clean sheet and coming just a whisker away from single-handedly defeating The Reds in what turned out to be a 4-4 draw.
Unfortunately, the rest of his London career was nothing but issues and upsets. Initially brought to the club as the most natural replacement for injured Cesc Fàbregas, the Russian was eventually forced to play out of his ideal, #10 position and become a winger instead. Always hard-working and professional, he’d make the most of his less-than-ideal situation, providing 22 goals and 23 assists during his first two-and-a-half years at Emirates. Still: the man known more for his technique and exceptional work rate has left a flavor of dissatisfaction about his performance when he rejoined Zenit in 2013.
To this day, Arshavin’s career remains a curious example of perhaps misguided loyalty to the childhood club – the loyalty, which in the end, backfired for it’s bearer, as the Russians took both his best footballing years and his monetary reward for devotion. The player has probably peaked a year before his Arsenal transfer anyway – after all, in 2008, it was him, who helped Russia defeat Netherlands in the best game of that years’ European Championship. Enigmatic and introverted, he ended up as a Slavic shadow of Dennis Bergkamp – and when his English adventure ended, many wondered: “what could’ve been…? if only…?”
26 June 2012 – Olivier Giroud signs from Montpellier (£9.6m)
“He has a very good physical presence and is exceptional in the air, with a great work ethic” – said Arsene Wenger back in 2012, after completing the signing of yet another fellow French compatriot. After some spectacularly underwhelming performances from youngsters Nicklas Bendtner and Carlos Vela, after mediocre goalscoring output of Marouane Chamakh, Gunners were finally getting their hands on a more accomplished forward, who has just helped Montpellier to their first-ever Ligue 1 title and captured French Top Division’s Golden Boot. For a team that just got rid of van Persie, his signature was invaluable.
From then on, Giroud’s services were usually considered a sort of mixed blessing by both pundits and fans. On one hand: he’s score +10 league goals in each of his five seasons in London; on the other hand, he’d regularily go missing against top-notch opponents, managing only one goal against Chelsea and two against both Manchester United and Tottenham. Already a year after his arrival, Gunners cast doubts on his ability by launching an amusing bid for Liverpool’s Luis Suárez. When that didn’t work out, many bitter Gooners unleashed their frustration on a glamour #9, scapegoating him on several occasions.
However – objectively speaking, it’s hard to have anything against the man. Even during the last season, when hardly any fans expected anything from him, he’d show up from the bench and boast the best minute-per-goal ratio in the entire league (85m). His outrageous scorpion strike against Crystal Palace will surely be making every single highlight compilation in the next 20 years – and, unlike Mkhitaryan’s goal, it wasn’t an offside venture. In September, Giroud will be 31. Can he have a proper rivalry with Lacazette, or will his transfer somewhere (Marseille? West Ham? Everton?) make him an undeserved victim again?
10 July 2014 – Alexis Sánchez signs from Barcelona (£31.7m)
This man, we’ll remember forever. Not just for his outstanding footballing ability; last season, he came up with some of the most creative ways of laughing off his own teammates from the bench. He had his reasons, though: whenever he actually was on the pitch, he rose head and shoulders above the players around him. Starting position didn’t matter; the opponents didn’t matter – with Alexis there, goals and assists were absolutely guaranteed. Unfortunately, his unquestionable leadership wasn’t enough – and the way Arsenal got dispatched by both Chelsea and Spurs had to leave a bitter taste in the Chilean’s mouth.
So now, he reportedly angling for a change. At 28, his clock is ticking fast – if the escape from London was to materialize, this would be about the last moment to find even stronger side than Gunners. 24 league goals and 11 assists are speaking for themselves: with those in résumé, joining Bayern Munich or Manchester City would not be a problem. It also wouldn’t be unreasonable – one more gargantuan, £70-£80 million transfer could immediately secure him more Champions League football instead of Thursday night trips to some redundant countries. Cesc Fàbregas has already set the example six years ago, after all.
All things considered, it’s astonishing that Sánchez did not manage to win the title at Emirates. During his first season in London, he pretty much terrorized the league before Christmas – only to see his form dipping in the second half of the campaign. A year ago, it was the other way around: injuries and poor performances plagued him until March and then, he’d score 7 goals in 9 games. If he leaves now, he’ll forever be remembered as the man who tried to 110% of his abilities yet still did not succeed. How long have Arsenal been producing such unfulfilled legends now? And what are Lacazette’s odds to overcome the trend?