The 2017 summer transfer window, from a Premier League perspective, was marked out by a trio of the division’s biggest clubs funnelling a large chunk of their budget toward nabbing a new striker.
It was a summer in which the market was not offering up a surefire, world-class striker for those in search goalscoring reinforcements – namely Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal; there was never a question of, say, a Harry Kane, a Luis Suárez or an Edinson Cavani becoming available.
So instead, attention turned to a trio of high-potential centre-forwards who each came with at least one significant caveat, with all three players at some stage being linked with each club before the pieces finally settled into place.
There was Romelu Lukaku, a proven Premier League goalscorer with Everton who owned a questionable record against the very best teams and was previously deemed surplus at Chelsea; there was Álvaro Morata, who had just won the Champions League with Real Madrid, but only as a back-up for Karim Benzema; and there was Alexandre Lacazette, the prolific Lyon forward who scored for fun in Ligue 1, yet was untrusted by France boss Didier Deschamps.
In the end, United plumped for Lukaku – reportedly snatching the Belgian from under the noses of former club Chelsea – and the Blues signed Morata, costing a reported £75million and £65million respectively.
Lacazette, at £52million, proved the cheapest of the three, but his transfer fee still set a new club record for Arsenal.
Before the 2017/18 season had even begun, talk had turned to which of the three clubs had gotten the better deal. All born within two years of one another, and all commanding transfer fees in the same ballpark, the stage was set for an intriguing showdown.
All three scored on their Premier League debuts for their new clubs, but it was Morata and Lukaku who set the early pace. The Chelsea man scored nine league goals from his first 14 games, while Lukaku netted eight in twelve.
By mid-January, Lacazette’s modest return of eight league goals from 23 games – which included an eight-game drought – left the Frenchman lagging behind Morata and Lukaku in the eyes of many. There was good reason, it seemed, the Arsenal No.9 had cost less than the others.
So low appeared both Lacazatte’s confidence in front of goal and Arsenal’s confidence in him that the Gunners resolved to break their transfer record once more during the January transfer window, splashing £60million to sign another striker, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
But Lacazette began to show glimpses of his true potential, scoring five goals in his last seven games, a portent of what has since followed. Morata tailed off drastically over the second part of last season, losing his place to January signing Olivier Giroud and looking a shell of the player he appeared in those initial weeks of 2017/18.
And, although he has remained United’s primary striking option, Lukaku is now riding a six-game goalless streak and drawing the ire of fans for a perceived lack of movement and unreliability in front of goal.
Lacazette, on the other hand, is thriving. Arsenal are the Premier League’s form team, with their recent 5-1 win over Fulham their sixth victory in a row. And Lacazette has been crucial to the Gunners’ uptick under new manager Unai Emery. The Frenchman netted a double at Craven Cottage to take his all-competitions tally for the season to five goals and three assists in ten appearances.
His second strike against Fulham, a 20-yard arrow into the bottom corner, was the mark of a striker in red-hot form, showing the confidence to take his shooting opportunities early, with supreme accuracy and without hesitation.
Crucially, he has also learned how to co-exist with Aubameyang. Indeed, the former Lyon man has suddenly looked so comfortable leading the line for Arsenal that the record January arrival has had to move out to the wing in search of game time.
It may have taken him a year longer than many would have hoped, but Lacazette is now living up to every expectation, displaying the cute link-play, speed in behind opposition defences and unnerving cool in front of goal that made him so sought-after at Lyon.
With jobs on the line on a weekly basis and the rising cost of being a football fan leading to a growing impatience both from the dugout and the terraces, time is football’s most precious commodity, rarely afforded to managers or players.
More than any other nation’s top flight, the Premier League, billed by its unrelenting marketing juggernaut as the Best League in the World™, has fostered a culture of ‘now’: what has gone before buys little credit, with instant gratification a perpetual demand.
The contrasting plights of Morata, Lukaku and Lacazatte, though, show that patience can still be a virtue. A Tortoise and the Hare fable for the Premier League age.