There remains considerable uncertainty around Alexandre Lacazette’s future, but this could yet be one of those rare contract standoffs that actually works in everybody’s favour.
Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta dangled an unexpected carrot on the eve of Friday’s game, hinting that the 30-year-old could yet be offered an extension to his existing agreement which expires at the end of the season.
ESPN reported on Sept. 17 that there was no offer on the table from the club, and that is still the case today, but on this evidence, Lacazette is not about to join the long list of players to spend the impasse sitting on his hands.
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He set the tone for Friday’s 3-1 win over Aston Villa four days earlier. The Frenchman reinvigorated an ailing team performance against Palace on Monday with a vibrant 23-minute cameo that climaxed with a stoppage-time equaliser to salvage a draw.
Lacazette was rewarded with a place in the starting XI here — his first Premier League start of the season, having featured for just 72 minutes before tonight — with Arteta’s prematch news conference words ringing in his ears, chiefly that “anything is possible” regarding the prospect of a new contract.
Whether Lacazette is motivated by proving himself worthy of extending his stay in north London or showcasing his talents to potential suitors in the January transfer window is unclear. But if Arteta can harness the determination he showed here, Lacazette can prove himself a real asset in the coming weeks and months regardless of what the future holds.
“He was terrific,” said Arteta of Lacazette. “The way he finished the last game, I already made the decision [to start him]. He worked really hard, he hasn’t played many minutes.”
Arteta altered his system to accommodate Lacazette, moving away from the 4-3-3 shape that left Arsenal regularly exposed against Palace to something approximating 4-4-2 in possession but more clearly 4-2-3-1 without.
Lacazette dropped in to help stifle Villa’s transition, a counter-attack that can be deadly, as shown when winning this fixture last season 3-0 with fans absent due to COVID-19.
Arsenal benefitted from a full house at the Emirates, responding to a dynamic opening 45 minutes in which Villa were overwhelmed and lucky to end the half only 2-0 behind.
But for VAR, the lead would have been even smaller. Thomas Partey opened the scoring with a 23rd-minute header — his first goal for the club from his 49th attempt — before Lacazette went down in the box under a challenge from Matt Targett.
Referee Craig Pawson was encouraged to review his original decision and opted to award Arsenal a spot-kick, tangible reward for another example of Lacazette’s sharpness of thought to react quickest to a loose ball.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang missed the penalty but converted the rebound to the chagrin of former Arsenal goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez, whose boundless willingness to speak at length about the Gunners since joining Villa seemingly led to a little payback from the home fans. The Emirates supporters gleefully chanted “you’re just a s— Aaron Ramsdale” at someone they were widely disappointed to lose when he departed in summer 2020 for £20 million.
It was in fact a miserable night for Martinez, who could have done better for Partey’s goal, was unfortunate with Aubameyang’s penalty and was left without a chance as Emile Smith Rowe’s 56th-minute shot took a deflection off Tyrone Mings to squeeze inside his near post.
Substitute Jacob Ramsey scored a brilliant 82nd-minute consolation, curling home a right-foot shot from the edge of the box, but it brought merely a modicum of respectability to the score that Villa’s performance did not deserve.
Arsenal started with similar purpose against Palace but couldn’t sustain it. Here, they did just that in what ranks as their best performance of the season to date — Nuno Tavares in particular made the most of his first Premier League start — and perhaps the most striking example of the attacking football Arteta ideally wants to implement.
“We attacked them really aggressively, we won every duel,” said the Spaniard. “We were creative, a threat. I’m proud of the team, they played really well.
“This is how we have to play. This is when we are good, when we play with real desire, real commitment and can have clear ideas of how to attack them.”
England manager Gareth Southgate and his assistant Steve Holland were in the stands to witness Smith Rowe enhance his case for inclusion in next month’s squad for World Cup qualifiers against Albania and San Marino.
Southgate claimed Smith Rowe, who was the subject of two bids from Villa in the summer, was close to making October’s internationals, and only the ferocity of competition in his area of the pitch for England can prevent him earning a call-up if he continues like this.
“The other night [against Palace] he wasn’t 100 percent fit, but he stepped forward and he wanted to play with a difficult injury that he had,” said Arteta. “There is no complaining, he is just looking forward, he is really determined, he has changed the way he is living as well a little bit and some of the habits that he had and he’s been superb.
“When you want to take the game to the next level, when you become a real important player in such a big club, that should be the only priority and every detail is important and relevant. You have to make him aware of that, you cannot give percentages away that can make big differences and he has changed that. Credit to him and obviously the staff here that are all the time monitoring and build that education with him and he’ll only get better.”
That is another off-field situation that could be beneficial to Arteta, just like Lacazette, who earned a standing ovation when he was withdrawn for the final 22 minutes due to fatigue here. Going from substitute to substituted in such circumstances within the same midweek is a significant step forward for him.
Keep this up and he’ll give Arsenal an even bigger decision to make.