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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Lacazette, Morata and Lukaku - eclipse of the costly No 9s

It has only been a few days since the closing of a stormy January transfer window in the Premier League. Now watch the eclipse, and how a collection of the most expensive and esteemed centre-forwards in English football are cast into areas of shadow.

It is barely six months since three of the established top six clubs in the wealthiest league in Europe shattered spending records to bring in new men for their No 9 jerseys. They all started well, but as each of Chelsea’s Alvaro Morata, Arsenal’s Alexandre Lacazette and Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku suffered hiccups in fitness or form with the approach of year’s end, the transfer window opened and in sprang stellar alternatives.

"Welcome to Manchester, Alexis", read a carefully illustrated banner hanging on Old Trafford’s East Stand on Saturday, to greet Alexis Sanchez - and his pet dogs, pictured on the banner - for the Chilean striker’s home debut for United. Alexis duly scored against Huddersfield Town, as did Lukaku, who may have been relieved to notch only his second league goal since early December but may reflect too on his manager Jose Mourinho’s post-match remarks, praising Sanchez’s performance and ability to operate across all forward positions.

“We had only one No 9,” Mourinho said. “Now we have more No 9s. We have Alexis, we have Anthony Martial, we have Marcus Rashford, and we have to improve in efficiency.”

Manchester United’s Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring against Huddersfield Town. It was the Chilean's first Premier League goal for his new club. Scott Heppell / Reuters
Manchester United’s Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring against Huddersfield Town. It was the Chilean's first Premier League goal for his new club. Scott Heppell / Reuters

There was a home debut the same day for Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, in at the club Sanchez has just left. There was a goal for Aubameyang in the thrashing of Everton. From the Arsenal bench, Lacazette looked on at the party. Aubameyang last week overtook Lacazette as the most costly signing in Arsenal’s history and apparently leapfrogged him in the hierarchy. Lacazette, nearly £54 million (Dh280m) from Lyon last summer, has scored nine goals for the London club, across competitions, but only one of those has been registered in the past two months, and just one in his last 10 league outings.

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored on his Arsenal debut in the 5-1 rout of Everton. Tony O'Brien / Reuters
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored on his Arsenal debut in the 5-1 rout of Everton. Tony O'Brien / Reuters

Into the whirligig of attacking players who have moved within the upper storey of the Premier League in the last two weeks – Sanchez heading north, Henrikh Mkhitarayan going south – comes Olivier Giroud, who can anticipate a likely Chelsea debut on Monday at Watford following his move from Arsenal, even if it is most likely to come from the bench.

Antonio Conte, the Chelsea manager, wanted a target man and his desire for one had hardened since Alvaro Morata, his £58m recruit from Real Madrid last July, hit setbacks after his excellent start in English football. Like Lacazette, Morata’s form since the beginning of December - one goal in eight games, after 11 in his Chelsea No 9 shirt up until then – has dipped; a back injury, likely to keep him out for another 10 days, has also hampered Morata.

Olivier Giroud, left, watched from the bench as Chlsea were beaten 3-0 by Bournemouth on Wednesday. David Klein / Reuters
Olivier Giroud, left, watched from the bench as Chlsea were beaten 3-0 by Bournemouth on Wednesday. David Klein / Reuters

Giroud, at £18m, looks a good value understudy. He is tried and tested in English football, qualities Conte wanted, along with strong physical presence, and effectiveness in the air, meeting crosses.

“Our expectation is he will help us. I asked for this sort of player,” said the Chelsea manager, acknowledging that this was a signing for the short and medium-term. “He’s 31, we are not talking about a young player. He has a lot of experience.”

Giroud has his own short-term aims. He has a World Cup place, with France, to play for. And he has a point to prove to Arsenal, who regarded his fine goals-per-game ratio as something best used late in games. He will want to make the same instant impact as Aubameyang did on Saturday, as Sanchez did at Old Trafford and indeed as Michy Batshuayi, the striker Chelsea loaned out to Borussia Dortmund, did at the beginning of a weekend when new arrivals everywhere have relished the spotlight and scrutiny.

Batshuayi, effectively replaced at Stamford Bridge by Giroud, scored twice on his Dortmund debut against Cologne.

Michy Batshuayi, centre, scored twice on his Borussia Dortmund debut in the won over Cologne. Friedemann Vogel / EPA
Michy Batshuayi, centre, scored twice on his Borussia Dortmund debut in the won over Cologne. Friedemann Vogel / EPA

All of which reflects a mood of impatience. Between them, Lukaku, Morata and Lacazette cost their current owners almost £190m in 2017. In the first weeks of 2018, they have all been reminded very sharply they are replaceable. And spare a thought for another centre-forward currently watching from the margins. Poor Gabriel Jesus, Manchester City’s statement buy – he cost £27m, aged just 20 – barely a year ago, sits out the procession to the league title recovering from a knee injury. His run of goals had dried up a little at the end of 2017, too, and he has every reason to suspect his employers, keen though they are on him, will spend lavishly in the next window on attacking reinforcements.