Alexandre Lacazette’s importance to Arsenal revealed amid injury concern ahead of Watford clash

The Gunners' number nine has been criticised by many but is a key part of Mikel Arteta's project at the Emirates

It is rare that you will find a player as regularly derided but unanimously loved as Alexandre Lacazette.

The shaven-headed Frenchman has had most Arsenal fans pulling their hair out for much of this season as he has toiled to just three goals in the Premier League, missing chance after glorious chance most recently in clashes against Wolves and Brentford.

At the same time though, when his regularly scheduled substitutions come around week after week, you would be hard pressed to find a time where he doesn’t receive a standing ovation from that same Gunners support.

How can this be?

Of course there is the tactical side.

Despite his limitations, most respect the facilitative role Lacazette does as a ‘false nine’ in funnelling the ball from deep out to Arsenal’s threatening inside forwards.

It is little coincidence that since the Frenchman became a regular starter in early December, that Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and Emile Smith Rowe have 11 goals between them despite injuries and suspensions for the latter pair.

Perhaps more significant in this curious relationship is the emotional connection Gunners fans feel with their number nine.

Supporters tend to gravitate most towards players they view as a vicarious extension of the dreams they will never get the chance to live out.

The passion and commitment Lacazette brings to every game is probably the way that the 60,000 inside the Emirates would play if they had the chance, and as a result he is forgiven a multitude of sins.

“When I see our striker in the 85th minute, chasing a full-back in the corner flag, winning the ball back, playing, going, fighting, missing one chance, missing two chances, going again. What can I do? I can only praise him and try to help him as much as possible and give him support,” said Mikel Arteta after the dramatic 2-1 win over Wolves articulating the sentiments of most supporters right now.

The seemingly unconditional mutual affection between Lacazette and the Arsenal fans is something that is pretty common in the red half of north London right now.

Likeable summer additions such as Aaron Ramsdale and Ben White combined with contract extensions for fan favourites like Kieran Tierney and the exciting form of academy products of Saka and Smith Rowe have helped quickly transform a relationship between players and fans at Arsenal that had been acerbic at worst and indifferent at best as recently as 12 months ago.

The current Gunners squad is younger, fresher and more entertaining than it has been for years and as a result the post-COVID atmosphere is probably the best the Emirates has seen since the move from Highbury in 2006.

This is no accident.

Through a rapid turnover in players Arteta has instilled one of the pillars of his project that he spoke about in his first ever press conference.

“We need the fans,” he said when he took the job in December 2019. “We need to engage them, we need to be able to transmit with our behaviours, our intentions, what we want to bring to this football club.

“I think that’s the only way, where we give them a little bit, they give us a little bit, and suddenly we feel that connection, because when plug plug these two things together, it is so powerful.”

The Spaniard’s cultural culling has been swift and ruthless but through it all one of the few things to have survived is Lacazette. That speaks volumes to how highly he’s valued.

The Frenchman is an ideal poster boy for the process that is well underway in north London and although he has become captain by default there are few more fitting leaders.

As Arsenal’s first team squad trained at the Emirates this week an image emerged of Lacazette on the floor wincing at an ankle knock he had appeared to pick up in the session. The resulting panic felt by many spoke volumes.

If the 30-year-old was unavailable for Sunday’s trip to Watford, the Gunners would probably have been able to cope. Eddie Nketiah could have filled in against the relegation strugglers, while Arteta has previously indicated that Martinelli and Smith Rowe could both play as a number nine if needed.

It is testament though to Lacazette’s importance in the squad that there is such a feeling of relief around London Colney that they won’t have to.