André-Pierre Gignac, Loic Rémy and Anthony Martial, or, if you prefer, Kévin Gameiro, Nabil Fékir and Olivier Giroud. No matter how one approaches it, the list of strikers who have, at various times, kept Alexandre Lacazette out of the French national team is far from impressive.
Die-hard Lyon fans would have you believe that Didier Deschamps harbours an inherent bias against Lyon players, but that hasn’t stopped Fékir and Christophe Jallet from being selected in recent years, despite their form and fitness not always meriting a call-up. Lacazette’s lack of international caps is still more an indictment of Deschamps than the player himself, but it does beg the question of how his development and performances have seen him evolve.
In terms of goals per match and total goals scored, Lacazette has been the most reliable Frenchman operating in Europe’s top leagues in recent years, having scored more than ninety league goals since being moved to centre forward at the start of the 2013-14 season. The perceived quality of Ligue 1 will, of course, foster some level of skepticism, but the steadiness of Lacazette’s numbers is irrefutable, especially when placed in context. Lacazette, at 5’9″ and a shade over 70 kg, lacks the bulk to battle with bigger central defenders, and he has never been especially blessed with pace, even dating to his earliest appearances under Claude Puel, when he was used on both flanks, but never centrally.
Right-footed but also decent with his left, Lacazette is better than his size might suggest in the air, and his close control is impressive but not world class. In sum, there is nothing patently superlative about Lacazette’s skillset other than his effectiveness; he would seem thus to be a paradox for the contemporary football analyst. Looking to pinpoint a reason for Lacazette’s success might, indeed, only move one further away from the truth, which is probably best found in tracing his evolution as a player.
As previously stated, Lacazette started as a winger, playing on both flanks in under Claude Puel, either in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-2. Lacazette’s long-term future was as a striker, but at the time, Lisandro Lopez and Bafétimbi Gomis formed a fairly effective partnership at centre forward, and Lacazette’s versatility allowed him to earn as many minutes as he did in 2011-12, being able to spell either of the forwards as well as Michel Bastos or Jimmy Briand on the flanks. Not being able to operate in his preferred role hardly meant that Lacazette sulked, as he worked hard to succeed on the wing, significantly adding to his playing time in his second full season even though he wasn’t a natural fit in wide areas in either system.
This combination of patience and doggedness was well appreciated by Lyon’s then-manager, Rémi Garde, whose familiarity with the club’s up-and-coming players allowed him to have faith in Lacazette’s development. It has also continued to be the standard by which Lacazette operates, and it has served him very well despite a rather remarkable series of adverse circumstances.
In 2013-14, Rémi Garde’s final season in charge, Lyon had fully embraced a youth-oriented policy driven by the club’s rather dire financial situation, and it was paying dividends in the form of the emergence not only of Lacazette but a cadre of similarly aged academy products, including Samuel Umtiti and Clément Grenier. Lacazette was playing as a second striker alongside Bafétimbi Gomis in a 4-4-2, and Grenier was pulling the strings as an inverted winger-cum-playmaker.
There had been some issues with discipline earlier in the season, but Lacazette was scoring a rate of better than a goal every other match, and Lyon were in the thick of the race for third place and its all-important berth in the Champions’ League. Grenier, however, suffered an injury and even though qualification was achieved, Lacazette’s goals dried up, scoring just two in his final fourteen league matches. However, that experience did much to shape Lacazette; while Gomis was a more experienced striker, the younger player realized the gravitas of his situation and took his first steps toward becoming a leader.
That transition was dramatically accelerated the following year; with the sale of Gomis in the summer, Lacazette became the veteran of a new-look attack for Lyon, playing alongside Clinton N’Jie in a diamond. Nabil Fekir’s creativity provided the necessary service, while the workrate and pace of N’Jie afforded Lacazette the requisite space in which to work. A month out with a back injury stunted Lyon’s title hopes, but Lacazette’s 27 goals labeled him a bonafide star as he lead the league in scoring. With a starting eleven composed largely of academy graduates, Lyon were tipped to be one of Europe’s teams to watch, and Lacazette was at the centre of it all.
The next season was a bit of a muddle as botched transfers, a long-term injury to Fekir and tactical ineptitude on the part of Hubert Fournier saw Lyon struggle badly in both Europe and the league. N’Jie’s departure frequently had Lacazette partnering Claudio Beauvue, a player whose ability in the air was impressive, but was unwilling to sacrifice his individual goals for the good of the team. The removal of Fournier and a switch to a 4-3-3 with youngster Maxwell Cornet and forgotten man Rachid Ghezzal on the flanks saw the form of Lacazette and the team blossom, scoring fifteen goals in the run-in as Lyon pipped Monaco to second.
Trouble has hardly evaded Lyon in the season just gone, with Fekir’s fitness and injuries plaguing the team throughout the season. This has forced Fournier’s replacement, Bruno Génésio into a number of unorthodox tactical changes, but Lacazette has been front and centre no matter the formation; only three outfield players racked up more minutes than Lacazette, who finished with a stunning 37 goals across all competitions.
Whereas the Lacazette of even a year ago might have struggled in the circumstances Lyon faced in 2016-17, this year’s edition was unfazed by tactical changes, styles of play or other distractions. No matter the circumstances, Lacazette kept scoring, but also continuing his devlopement as a complete centre forward. Lacazette has never had what one would call a poor work-rate but this season his movement, passing and defensive effort have improved massively, showing that he has fully embraced his role as a veteran presence on the team, making the effort to succeed no matter the obstacles.
This was perhaps never more evident than in Lyon’s home win against Roma in the Europa league. At that point, the Italian side were the clear favourite, with perhaps only Manchester United regarded as having a better chance to win the competition. Lyon had scored once from a set piece, but Roma surged into the interval with a 2-1 lead and the feeling was Lyon were lucky to even trail by that margin.
Lacazette, on perhaps the biggest night of Lyon’s season to date, definitively put the team on his shoulders in the second half, setting up Corentin Tolisso and scoring his own sublime goal, as well as completing 100% of his passes. Lyon won 4-2, but such was the hosts’ Lacazette-driven domination that the final score seemed to flatter the Italians. Silencing his doubters, Lacazette turned in one of the best performances of his career against a Champions’ League calibre opponent. One match doesn’t a player make but once more, the Lacazette of years past simply wouldn’t have been capable of this; even at 26, Lacazette, already a gifted scorer, continues to improve the mental side of his game.
When France convened in June for a pair of friendlies and a World Cup qualifier against Sweden, this time there was no decision for Deschamps to make. Lacazette, through his improvement, work ethic and maturity, had at last established himself as a player who was talented, driven and capable of overcoming obstacles, the kind of leader that any manager would want in their ranks. He will still have much do in England given the demands of Arsenal’s fans, but if his upward trajectory continues, Lacazette will have no trouble endearing himself to the crowds at the Emirates in short order, playing as a determined, disciplined European-level striker.