By the time the final whistle blew and the dust settled last Thursday night at the Emirates, the collective Arsenal fandom were left catching their breath after the roller coaster of a match saw Arsenal edge top four rivals Wolverhampton with a last-gasp stoppage time winner. The match had everything you could have wanted from a clash between two sides fighting for the inside track for the top 4 - suspense, intensity, and a fight back for the ages in front of an electric home crowd. Most importantly, it became an emphatic statement win for the Gunners, who have been longing to finally return to the league’s elite for the first time in nearly half a decade.
In poetic fashion, it was Arsenal’s captain, Alexandre Lacazette, who put the nail in the coffin to secure all three points against the Wolves. For 95 minutes, Laca ran himself into the ground, pressing the opposition relentlessly to win the ball back while holding up the play against a stingy Wolves defense. The striker’s tireless effort payed off when it mattered most, turning a Nicolas Pepe through ball into the matchwinner at the death. The shot, much like Laca, was imperfect - the ball needed a fortunate carom off Jose Sa’s hand to find the net - but exactly what Arsenal needed in the moment.
No match has quite captured the duality of Arsenal’s veteran striker, a player whose tenure has seen maddeningly poor runs of form countered by moments of euphoric brilliance. Up until the moment the ball was in the back of the net, Laca’s performance was 95 minutes of “so close, yet so far” play. His passing was hit or miss, his first touch clumsy at times, and his shot never quite on the mark. But, in a single moment of determined effort, the striker repaid his teammates’ and manager’s belief in him with one of the most memorable finishes in Emirates history.
In Arteta’s youth-oriented system, players like Lacazette are becoming more and more of a rarity. At 30 years old, he is a walking dinosaur compared to the boyish likes of Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe. Despite never being the fastest or most clinical attacker, he has managed to survive Arteta’s great culling of out-of-favor players as the manager has meticulously trimmed the fat from the roster. While more accomplished and talented footballers like Mesut Ozil and, most recently, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang have been ruthlessly dropped and shipped off by Arteta, Lacazette, in all of his nondescript glory, has steadily cemented his place on the team sheet and as the club’s leader.
Although Laca’s impact on the scoreline is largely average, His impact on the young starlets on the roster is incalculable. On the pitch, it is evident in his selfless play, opting to act as provider for the young attackers more often than not. His evolution into a false 9 of sorts has allowed the wide attackers to enjoy the lion’s share of the goals. Off the pitch, though, Laca’s influence has been noted time and time again by the younger players as well as Arteta himself. He has become the de facto older brother for the youngsters, a role model who they look up to for his professionalism and his team-first mentality. And it is had to argue that there is a better player to fill the role of veteran mentor on the roster.
This is not to say that Laca has been gifted any sort of immunity by the gaffer. On the contrary, the Frenchman’s name has been mentioned more and more frequently as a potential outbound transfer in recent windows. As Arsenal near the end of Arteta’s second full season, his retooling of the roster has two major holes to fill to be complete: a striker and a central midfielder. It is no secret that Lacazette is not a striker in Arteta’s mold, but as Arsenal’s sole striker with any appreciable experience, he has taken the pitch every match with pride, leading the new generation of Arsenal talent by example.
There is a good chance that the next 14 matches will be the last of his Arsenal career, a fact that is as bittersweet as it is expected. Mikel Arteta has made it clear that the club will pursue an elite striker in the summer, a move that potentially signals the end of Lacazette’s time at Arsenal. Save for a late-season contract extension, there’s not much indicating that he has a future at the Emirates.
Like so many former Gunners before him, he will find a new home to ply his trade, seeing out his career before riding off into the soccer sunset. It’s a shame that his name will never be mentioned amongst greats like Ian Wright or Aubameyang. Although he has never quite lived up to the expectation placed upon him as Arsenal’s record signing when he joined in 2017, he has been a prime representative of the side, playing with the utmost pride and professionalism. As Arsenal find themselves nearer and nearer to returning to the top 4 and playing in the Champions League, he may very well cement himself as a crucial piece of modern Arsenal history as the captain that helped lead them back. And that would be more than enough to etch his name onto the hearts of Arsenal fans everywhere.