It is early March and time is running out for Lyon in their Europa League last‑16 first leg with Roma at Stade des Lumières. The hosts lead 3-2 but are desperate to extend their advantage before the return in Italy. They drive forward and, two minutes into stoppage time, Mathieu Valbuena plays a sideways pass to Alexandre Lacazette who, lurking in a central position just outside the visitors’ area, takes a touch before hitting a swerving drive into the top corner of the net.
Nothing unusual there – the goal was Lacazette’s 27th of the season – but his celebration raised eyebrows. The striker stood still, steely faced, and waited for his teammates to come to him. Asked afterwards if what he did had been a tribute to Eric Cantona’s famous celebration after he scored for Manchester United against Sunderland in 1996, Lacazette replied that it had not. Instead, he was too exhausted to do anything else.
Cue more surprise. Because Lacazette, part of the France squad to face England in Paris on Tuesday evening, is a player whose burgeoning reputation has in part been built on a high work-rate. The 26-year-old is a relentless mover, someone who never stops running, never stops closing down opposition defenders, never stands still. Well, not usually anyway.
“Lacazette is the type of guy you have to explicitly tell: ‘Please, ease up,’” says the European football writer Andy Brassell. “He gives everything in every game, which has led to a few knocks and injuries. But it’s in Lacazette’s nature to work hard, and particularly so for Lyon as they’re his childhood team. Wearing that shirt means a lot to him.”
The commitment is total but that alone does not explain why the boy from the Mermoz district of France’s third-largest city is not only part of the national setup but has also drawn interest from clubs such as Arsenal, Manchester United and Atlético Madrid. Along with the hard work there is also high-quality movement, pace, link-up play and ruthlessly efficient finishing.
Lacazette has scored 127 goals in 274 appearances for Lyon since his debut for them in May 2010 and in 2015 became the first player in the club’s history to score 25 goals in a Ligue 1 season, something Karim Benzema and Sonny Anderson did not manage.
The most recent campaign brought his best output for Les Gones – 37 goals in 45 appearances, with 28 of those coming in France’s top flight. Lacazette’s shot‑conversion rate (33.3%) was the best of any forward who scored 20-plus goals in Europe’s leading five divisions – better than Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (26.7), Harry Kane (26.4), Luis Suárez (24.2) and, yes, Lionel Messi (20.7) and Cristiano Ronaldo (15.4).
“Lacazette is a natural talent,” says Julien Brun, a Paris-based commentator for beIN Sports. “Physically he is not that strong but he is very fast, hard-working and clever. He is loved by Lyon fans but supporters of other teams in France are more skeptical about him. Some even mock Lacazette by calling him ‘Penalzette’ because, they say, most of his goals come from penalties.”
Eleven of Lacazette’s 37 goals for Lyon last season did indeed come from the spot, but there were plenty of occasions when he showed that he is not only a clinical finisher but also an all-round one. There was the goal against Marseille that displayed Lacazette’s composure from an acute angle, the one away to AZ Alkmaar that showed he is comfortable with both feet, the one against Nice that he set up himself with a Dennis Bergkamp-at-Newcastle like touch and then there was that long-range strike against Roma, which was as unstoppable as it was late.
What Lacazette has also displayed since graduating from Lyon’s much-respected Tola Vologe academy is adaptability. Given his debut by Claude Puel he started as a winger before being moved into attack by Puel’s successor, Rémi Garde. Lacazette has subsequently thrived, having been deployed as the support and main striker in a 4-4-2 as well as the sole forward in a 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1, with the latter used by Bruno Génésio, who took over from Garde in 2015, for much of last season, one in which Lyon finished fourth in Ligue 1 and reached the semi-finals of the Europa League.
All of which makes Lacazette’s record at international level somewhat curious. Having scored France’s winning goal in the final of the Under-19 European Championship in 2010 he seemed destined to make a quick impact for Les Bleus’ senior side. But since his debut against Uruguay in June 2013 Lacazette has made only 10 further appearances under Didier Deschamps, scoring once. He did not feature during France’s 2-1 World Cup qualifying defeat by Sweden last Friday and although an argument can be made that there is simply too much competition ahead of him, primarily in the shape of Antoine Griezmann, Olivier Giroud and Kylian Mbappé, there is also a prevailing view that Deschamps simply does not rate him. Lacazette’s inclusion in the squad to face Sweden and England was his first call-up in almost two years.
“What may prove key to Lacazette’s progress with France is his relationship with Griezmann,” says Brassell. “They have been friends for decades having grown up together [Griezmann is from Mâcon, a city just outside Lyon] and played together at youth level for France. They have a great understanding on and off the pitch and with Deschamps having decided to build the team around Griezmann he may decide that the best way to get the most of his main man is to pair him with Lacazette on a regular basis.”
That is believed to be a feeling shared by Atlético, who rather than wanting to sign Lacazette as a replacement for Griezmann see him as the perfect partner. Griezmann is also said to be keen on his countryman joining him in Madrid and despite the court of arbitration for sport recently upholding Atlético’s transfer ban for the upcoming summer window, Lacazette is expected to sign for them, most probably joining in January for a fee in the region of €50m.
What is for sure is that he has outgrown Lyon and the next step is to prove to the wider world that he is the real deal, a process that could be kickstarted at Stade de France on Tuesday, with Deschamps expected to deploy Lacazette at some point against Gareth Southgate’s side.
“His character is very strong,” says Brun. “You can see that by the way he has lived up to expectations ever since coming into Lyon’s first team. Lacazette answered the questions about him in a positive way and he is young enough and good enough to do that for France as well.”