The north London club take on Rafa Benitez’s side in the Emirates Cup on Saturday and, yet to sign a striker of their own, will find out exactly what they are missing out on
By Ewan Roberts
After a long, protracted transfer saga, Gonzalo Higuain will finally take to the Emirates Stadium field on Saturday. But, rather than donning the red of Arsenal, he will be wearing the Azzurri of Napoli. Rather than cough up the required cash for the Argentine striker, Arsene Wenger switched his attention to chasing the controversial Luis Suarez.
The club’s pursuit of the Uruguay international feels fated to end in defeat, with Liverpool adamant the Premier League’s second top goalscorer will not be sold to a domestic rival. Instead, Arsenal’s much-maligned strikeforce has been barely bolstered by just one summer acquisition, the young and untested Yaya Sanogo, and remains headed by the ill-fitting Olivier Giroud. Robin van Persie remains unsucceeded.
Since Emmanuel Adebayor left the club in 2009, Arsenal have failed to recruit a striker worthy of the name. Marouane Chamakh, even on a free transfer, has been a waste of money, Park Chu-Young has been as visible as the Loch Ness monster, while Giroud, a €15 million signing last summer, has been a misfiring acquisition whose style is at odds with the Gunners’ pass-and-move philosophy.
|HIGUAIN V GIROUD
|2012-13 LEAGUE STATS
|1 (6%)||HEADERS||4 (36%)|
But in Higuain the club could have secured a striker that is both at the very peak of his powers – it may feel as though the Argentine has been around for an age, but he is still only 25 years old – and a great fit for the team. A player that can be compared and bracketed alongside the very best in the world; the finished article rather than the rough diamonds Wenger has so often plumped for in the past. A player truly capable of filling the goal void left behind by Van Persie.
In fact, since Higuain’s debut in January 2007, he has scored more league goals than the Dutchman over the same period, 107 to Van Persie’s 104 – though the latter’s tally came in 25 fewer games, a by-product of his poor injury record.
Incredibly, in Europe’s top five leagues, only seven players have scored more goals since Higuain swapped River Plate for the Spanish capital. No current Premier League player has scored more top-flight goals over the same period of time, with Higuain averaging a Primera Division goal every 112 minutes since making his debut. His 2012-13 strike rate of a goal every 107 minutes would produce 31 goals over a full 38-game season.
The French-born striker has an innate sense of where he needs to be, a predatory ability to sniff out chances, and, unlike Giroud (who scored a goal every 211 minutes), exudes confidence in front of goal; you simply expect him to finish chances. All but one of his Liga goals last season came from inside the box, while all but two were buried within two touches of receiving the ball. Impressively, none of Higuain’s goals have come from the penalty spot.
|GOALS SCORED IN EUROPE’S TOP FIVE LEAGUES SINCE HIGUAIN MADE HIS MADRID DEBUT
While Giroud boasted a fairly meagre shooting accuracy rate of 35 per cent, Higuain hit the target with 51% of his efforts on goal. In the 2011-12 season, across Europe’s top five leagues, no player boasted better shot accuracy than the Argentine (63.3%), while last season, of players to have more than 10 shots on goal, only six had a better total shots to goals conversion rate than Higuain (27.8%).
When Higuain gets a chance, he usually hits the target; and when he hits the target, he usually scores: 55% of his shots on target resulted in goals last season – that is significantly better than los Blancos team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo (35.7%), let alone Giroud (28.9%).
The ex-Montpellier striker’s wastefulness was particularly costly in a side which boasted one of the worst clear-cut chance conversion rates in the league. Though one of the more creative teams in England’s top flight, the Gunners’ clear-cut chance conversion rate of 51% was closer to bottom-of-the-table QPR (45%) than champions Manchester United (59%).
Giroud was the primary culprit, scoring just four of the 23 clear-cut chances that fell his way – a miserable 17% conversion rate and way below Arsenal’s already below-par average. Not only is Higuain one of the most clinical strikers in world football, unlike Arsenal’s current batch of barn door-evading forwards, his playing style would have been an excellent fit for the Gunners too.
Whereas Giroud relied on headers – a strength which was often underused, largely because Arsenal’s pass-heavy, possession-first principles don’t lend themselves to whipping balls into the box – Higuain does not. 36.4% of Giroud’s goals were headers last season (of players to score over 10 goals in the Premier League in 2012-13, only Marouane Fellaini, 45.5%, was more reliant on his aerial ability), whereas only 6.25% of Higuain’s 16 league strikes came via his skull.
While Giroud is static, more of a fixed out-ball that plays with his back to goal, Higuain is predominately forward-thinking, hanging on the shoulder of the last man, searching for pockets of space and darting behind the defence.
That mobility and flexibility across the frontline could have dovetailed wonderfully with Arsenal’s counterattacking strengths. For a team so possession focussed (they topped the Premier League for ball retention last season with 58.2%), the Gunners did in fact score more goals on the break (11) than any other side in the division. Higuain, similarly, has thrived in a Madrid side that have scored more counter-attacking goals than any other Liga side in each of Jose Mourinho’s three seasons at the club.
But instead of having a genuinely world-class forward, a player capable of transforming Arsenal from top-four scrappers to title contenders, the Gunners – despite the promises of big spending and nine-figure “war chests” – have settled for more of the same. Lots of talk, little action, and a strikeforce that remains a weakness.
Higuain’s signature could have had the rest of the Premier League trembling, a catalyst to end the club’s ever-extending wait for a trophy. On Saturday, when the Argentine potentially takes on the Gunners with his new Napoli team-mates (his class and nerveless finishing in stark contrast to that of Giroud), the home crowd will see exactly what they have missed out on, and will be reminded of the now ingrained penny-pinching caution that is holding the club back.
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