After watching on while his compatriots lifted the World Cup trophy over the summer, Alexandre Lacazette will have felt he had a point to prove.
The French striker played in his country’s qualifiers against the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Bulgaria, but missed out in a place in the squad to former club team-mates Olivier Giroud and Nabil Fekir, among others.
It was always going to be interesting to see how he reacted at club level – would he retreat into his shell and play scared, having felt as though he’d missed his best chance of the biggest prize, or would it make him all the more determined to make the best of what he still had?
Ultimately, not only has he done the latter, but he’s done so with the kind of swagger he could have been forgiven for losing after such a blow.
Yes, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s goal to put Arsenal 2-1 up against Cardiff was pretty tidy in and of itself, but the assist from his strike partner was the stand-out moment.
Imparting the perfect weight on that sort of touch is no mean feat, and to do so while maintaining the balance to spin away and provide an option for the return pass is something else.
If he simply opts for the lazy flick, it’ll still look good; and, yes, there’s still a lot to be said for moments in football which look stylish but end up with little in the way of end result. However, when you can leave opponents in awe and end the move with the ball in the back of the net, well, that’s nice too.
It certainly grants a player like Lacazette more than fleeting bouts of adulation, in the same way Dimitar Berbatov’s sumptuous flick over James Collins in 2008 will live longer in the memory than other pieces of brilliance from the Bulgarian.
Oh, and speaking of iconic pieces of skill, if you thought the sight of an Arsenal striker pirouetting away from an opponent in that manner looked familiar, you’d be right.
Yes, Dennis Bergkamp’s goal against Newcastle United was a once-in-a-lifetime sort of thing, and no one’s saying the link-up between Lacazette and Aubameyang is on the same level. It’s two men combining to do something Bergkamp was capable of on his own, after all.
However, to diminish the goal because it’s the work of two men collaborating to emulate one man’s genius would be foolish – you wouldn’t pass up a free Michelin-starred meal because there’s a two-starred restaurant the next town over, after all.
While Harry Arter and Sol Bamba might not be the most accomplished midfield pairing in the Premier League, the way in which the duo are nullified by one simple touch is remarkable.
As they adjust to the fact that they’re somehow facing away from a ball six yards behind them, there’s a temptation for each of the Cardiff central midfielders to blame the other, or at least there would be if they hadn’t each fallen into the same trap they’d be accusing their partner of failing to evade.
They’re like a baseball outfielder stood in position, arm outstretched, only for someone in the front row of the crowd to snatch the ball from their grasp – by the time they’ve realised what has happened, it’s too late to salvage the situation through anything other than desperation and blind panic.
The touch and pirouette from Lacazette make the finish possible, but Aubameyang himself justifies his team-mate’s behaviour with his own past actions: the Frenchman doesn’t offload to his partner so confidently if he’s playing alongside someone he can’t trust to take matters into his own hands from such a position, or else the ensuing dummy run would simply be a run.
Arsenal have played with just one striker on occasion since the Gabonese forward’s arrival in January, and there are certainly situations where the balance offered by late-arrivers from midfield is more sensible. However, it’s games like that against Cardiff where we can see the real benefit of arguably the Premier League’s best example of an early 2000s-style fluid forward pairing.
When one isn’t in a position to threaten, you need your eyes locked on the other to keep him tied up, but when both are marauding forward you’re left guessing which is the more liable to panic at the crucial moment. Of course, that’s a real issue when the answer is ‘neither of them’.
After beginning by calling desperately for the return pass, Lacazette begins to realise it will never arrive. However, the response, rather than one of frustration, is to will on his partner as if to say “you got this”.
Yaaaaaaaas you were on fire 🔥 pic.twitter.com/DUHFtVFCVS
— Zeej (@zeejhay416) September 2, 2018
Lacazette would eventually be rewarded with a goal of his own, and you certainly couldn’t call it the strike of a man playing with fear.
It’s akin to a golfer holing a putt and yelling “stay there!” into the hole, or a tennis player handed a gimme by his opponent and drilling the smash so hard into the ground that it bounces up and over the stands.
If the earlier touch demonstrated Lacazette’s subtlety and generosity with the ball, his finish for the winner was the strike of a man distilling determination, frustration and ability into one swipe of a boot.
We’ll still always have those occasions which call for the delicate twisting of a key in a lock, and Lacazette has shown he can do that, but sometimes that only gets you part of the way there and you need to batter down the door to finish the job.
By Tom Victor