Arsenal came into this past weekend’s must-win North London Derby and proceeded to get comprehensively smashed up by their fiercest rivals in a manner that would’ve cratered the Gunners’ confidence if not for the fact that it’s been evident for so long now that Tottenham are simply a much better team. Still, it was a big game and Arsenal lost it soundly, even if by a deceptively narrow 1-0 margin, which in effect eliminated them from realistic top-four contention. If Arsenal are to have a respectable season, it will all come down to winning the Europa League. Today, they’ve just been dealt a potentially huge blow on that front.
Earlier today, Arsenal announced that Alexandre Lacazette, their then-record signing last summer and the man who was supposed to help return the team to glory after a dismal league campaign last season, had undergone arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. Though the procedure is relatively minor as far as knee surgeries go, he’s still expected to be out for 4-6 weeks.
The timing of this couldn’t be worse. In the aftermath of the loss to Spurs, Lacazette essentially became Arsenal’s most important player. Though the 26-year-old Frenchman has just seen manager Arsène Wenger spring for an even more expensive player in his same position in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang last month, the fact that Aubameyang has already played in the Europa League this season with Borussia Dortmund means he can’t lace his boots up for Arsenal in that competition. So while Lacazette had already arguably been replaced as Arsenal’s starting striker, they still would need to rely on him in European play since it is by winning that trophy that the Gunners have their best chance of securing Champions League play next year.
Laca’s injury throws Arsenal’s Europa League plans into disarray. In the immediate sense, he’ll be unavailable for both legs of his team’s Round of 32 clash against Swedish club Östersunds, the first leg of which is on Thursday. On top of that, he’ll almost certainly miss the two Round of 16 legs should Arsenal progress that far. Östersunds should be light work for a team like Arsenal regardless of whether Lacazette plays or not, but this competition is full of dangerous teams, meaning that Round of 16 matchup could be tough. Wenger would certainly prefer to face a club like Lazio with Lacazette up top rather than Danny Welbeck, who at this moment is their only other senior striker available to play in Europe.
The problems could run even deeper than that, though. If Laca’s recovery is on the longer end of the projected 4-6 weeks and Arsenal fight their way through the two Europa League rounds he’s set to miss, he’ll be coming back to fitness right around when the quarterfinals start. He may or may not be fit enough to start the first leg of that potential tie, but what Lacazette needs just as much as fitness is confidence.
Lacazette hasn’t been awful this season. He’s scored nine goals and set up three assists in 26 Premier League appearances, which isn’t great by any means but isn’t a terrible return for a striker in his first season in a new league. However, those stats and the performances that have come along with them definitely haven’t been as promising as one would’ve hoped for when spending more than £50 million on a forward. Lacazette has found it hard to get into good goalscoring positions consistently, seems to be overmatched physically in a league where neither his speed or stamina are quite up to snuff, and he still doesn’t look very integrated into the team and how the manager wants to play. Most worryingly for Lacazette, Wenger’s decision to buy Auba halfway through Laca’s inaugural campaign seems like pretty clear evidence that the manager doesn’t have much faith in Lacazette’s future prospects with the club.
All season long and especially as of late, Lacazette has played like a player short on confidence. (For instance, he’s only scored once in the past three months). Aubameyang’s presence has to have depleted his reservoir of self-esteem even further, right at a time when he could least afford a hit like that. If there was one upside to the Tottenham loss and the sizable blow that match dealt Arsenal’s top-four aspirations from Lacazette’s perspective, it was that Wenger’s new No. 1 priority going forward probably would’ve been to fluff Lacazette’s flagging confidence in order to best maximize the team’s Europa League charge.
Laca would’ve probably started both matches against the wildly overmatched Östersunds, and he easily could’ve come away from that tie with a goal or three to boost his pride. Similarly, Arsenal probably would’ve given Laca valuable pitch time in the Premier League to keep his confidence and match sharpness up for the games that matter in Europe. Wenger would’ve known that in Lacazette—not Aubameyang—lay his team’s best hopes for the crucial success Arsenal are going after this year, and by focusing on Lacazette Wenger just might’ve gotten the best out of his compatriot.
Instead, Lacazette is injured for the next month or so and Arsenal can only lick their wounds. Welbeck is a pretty solid player who should be enough to get the team past Östersunds and probably the next round, as long as he can avoid the injuries that have plagued him his whole career and Arsenal don’t get an unlucky draw. Lacazette should have at least a week or two to round into some semblance of form once he recovers from surgery, and he’ll be given every chance to fire Arsenal to the Europa League title as long as he’s healthy enough for it. Things look pretty bad now, but not so much to qualify as a real crisis.
Nevertheless, you can’t help but feel that coming off a rousing success of a January transfer window deadline and a magnificent showing in the Premier League against Everton right after, everything has gone exactly wrong for Arsenal since then. Which, to be fair, is just about the most predictable state of events when it comes to this maddeningly hapless club.