The Curse of the No. 9

It’s perhaps one of the worst kept secrets in football that Arsenal are looking for a new striker. After the departure of Alexandre Lacazette, coupled with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s meltdown, Arsenal are in the hunt for someone new to lead the line.

Since Arsène Wenger’s days, Arsenal have had no less than 10 players wear the coveted number 9 shirt for the club, all of which played under Wenger, two of which played under Unai Emery and only one who played under Mikel Arteta.

To say that they have all been a failure would just be patently false. Each played a role in their own way and while some stints were greater than others, there is the undeniable feeling of anti-climax. Everything from unfulfilled potential, gross overpayment, bad luck or just purely being unable to put the ball in the back of the net.

With Arsenal certain to bring in a new striker, someone else will be inheriting the number 9 shirt left behind by Lacazette. It could be Eddie Nketiah, having his number 30 upgraded to the iconic number, or it could be someone else who comes into take it.

Either way, whomever gets the number next will almost certainly be aware of the mysterious “curse of the number 9” that has so plagued the club since Wenger’s first signing for the position.

Here, we take a look at all those who have arrived since Wenger’s appointment in the role and see how they faired and whether or not they suffered from the fabled voodoo.

🇫🇷 Nicolas Anelka902812£500k£22.3m
🇭🇷 Davor Šuker37113£3.5mFree
🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿 Francis Jeffers3882£10m£2.6m
🇪🇸 José Antonio Reyes1102326£17m£10m
🇧🇷 Júlio Baptista35104LoanN/A
🇭🇷 Eduardo da Silva682117£7.5m£6m
🇰🇷 Park Chu-young710£3mFree
🇩🇪 Lukas Podolski823117£10.9m£8.1m
🇪🇸 Lucas Pérez2175£17.1m£4m
🇫🇷 Alexandre Lacazette2067136£46.5mFree
All number 9s that have joined Arsenal since Arsène Wenger’s appointment.

Nicolas Anelka
Rating: 8/10
Nicolas Anelka was the first player that Arsène Wenger signed who took the number 9. Taking over from the departed Paul Merson, Anelka joined Arsenal for a small sum of £500,000. Such a transfer for such a small fee would be ludicrous by today’s standards, it would be akin to picking up 18-year-old Kylian Mbappé for £10m.

However, such was Wenger’s knowledge of the French market, upcoming talents and a knack for economics, that Arsenal were able to take advantage of a hugely advantageous market opportunity.

Nicknamed “Le Sulk”, owing to his gloomy demeanour, Anelka is perhaps the best player on the list.

Anelka was a prodigious talent. After usurping Ian Wright in the in the starting XI, Anelka went on to win the PFA Young Player of the Year Award and played a huge part in the team’s double-winning side the year before, scoring the team’s second goal in the FA Cup final.

Wenger’s initial plan was to have a system that would have incorporated Anelka, David Trezeguet and Thierry Henry, however, Anelka’s departure and a failure to sign Trezeguet, meant the plan went unrealised.

Whatever later opinions may be of Anelka, there is no doubting the talent he possessed. He was a massive player for Arsenal in his time for the club who would never quite find a home in later life. Problems off the pitch plagued much of his career, most of which were documented in Netflix’s Anelka: Misunderstood documentary.

While his sale was certainly lamented by Wenger, there can’t be too many complaints. The £21.8m profit Arsenal made on Anelka’s transfer to Real Madrid paid for upgraded facilities at London Colney and signed Thierry Henry from Juventus, who would go onto become the club’s all-time leading goalscorer and become, arguably, one of, if not the best player in the club’s history.

Davor Šuker
Rating: 4/10
After three years at Real Madrid with 49 goals and 7 assists, Davor Šuker looked to be a dream buy for Arsène Wenger’s side. For many, Šuker was the proto-type for what players like Sylvain Wiltord would become in later years.

It’s fair to say that his one season with the club wasn’t particularly memorable. Unable to displace Thierry Henry, unhappy with his back-up role and unable to regularly break into Arsène Wenger’s side, Šuker was eventually bundled off to West Ham.

While Šuker was not an overwhelming failure, his lack of patience at the role he was given likely factored into his decision to leave and he left the club as a forgotten man.

What little Šuker is remembered for is unfortunate as well. Missing the first penalty in a shootout against Galatasaray in the 2000 UEFA Cup final is an unsatisfying legacy to leave behind.

Francis Jeffers
Rating: 1/10
The archetypal “fox in the box”. Francis Jeffers’ time with Arsenal was a monumental let-down from start to finish.

His three seasons with the club were dogged by unfortunate injuries and an inability to displace the talented forwards ahead of him.

At the time, Jeffers had looked quite the coupe for Arsène Wenger. While his goalscoring record at Everton wasn’t exactly immaculate, he had earned a reputation for being in the right place at the right time.

Sadly, Jeffers failed to ever live up to that initial hype. Though he scored 3 goals in the club’s 2003 FA Cup run against Farnborough and Chelsea, there is little else that Jeffers was able to contribute to the team.

Eventually, Jeffers was bundled out to Charlton Athletic following a disastrous loan-spell with former-club Everton, however, his final memory for Arsenal was appearing as a 60th minute substitute for Dennis Bergkamp in the 2003 FA Community Shield, only to be dismissed with a straight red card 12 minutes later after lashing out at Phil Neville.

José Antonio Reyes
Rating: 6/10
The name José Antonio Reyes continues to reverberate around European football after his untimely death in 2019. For many, the tragic car crash that caused his death is the first time they will have heard the name, but for Arsenal fans, it was a name that rang out around Highbury nearly every week after he signed from Sevilla in January 2004.

Beating out many teams to his signature, Reyes was initially slow to adapt to life in the Premier League. Arsène Wenger seemed unwilling to throw the young Spaniard in the deep end in the early stages, especially since the team were busy chasing the league title and eventually immortality.

Eventually, Reyes made his presence known with a stunning display against Claudio Ranieri’s Chelsea, scoring two goals, the first of which was an undisputed screamer from the edge of the box.

The following season, Reyes was instrumental as Arsenal managed to overtake Nottingham Forest’s record of 42 matches unbeaten, grabbing a crucial goal in a thrilling 5-3 win over Middlesbrough.

Reyes formed a formidable partnership with Thierry Henry. Henry has often spoken about how Reyes was a joy to partner and one who was crucial to the team’s build-up play. Reyes had a knack for spotting the Frenchman in the box and never failed to pick him out when needed.

But the good times didn’t last long. Eventually, Reyes began to feel homesick. Despite the fact that his parents Mari and Francisco and his brother Jesús lived with him in England, Reyes longed for a return to Spain. Eventually, things came to a head when he was the unwitting foil for a prank call by Spanish radio station Cadena COPE, when one of the hosts pretended to be Real Madrid’s (at the time) director of football, Emilio Butragueño calling to speak about a potential transfer.

Reyes was obviously the unfortunate victim of a cruel prank, but that didn’t change the things he said. Revealing that he disliked life in London and that there were “bad people” at the club and that he wanted to leave.

This did little to endear him to Arsenal and despite two official statements on the club’s website, Reyes once again spoke about his willingness to move on from Arsenal in the Spanish press. This, ultimately, proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for Wenger, who was exceptionally frustrated with Real Madrid’s attempts to unsettle the player and he was eventually loaned to Madrid, with Júlio Baptista joining the club in return.

Eventually, Reyes joined Madrid’s local rivals, Atlético Madrid. Though his time at Arsenal ended badly, few can forget how good Reyes was at his best or what moments of delight he brought to the club in his time there.

Júlio Baptista
Rating: 4/10
Though he joined as a result of a loan swap-deal with José Antonio Reyes, Júlio Baptista had long been an Arsenal target, dating back to his time with Sevilla. Though Arsenal looked to sign him for £13.75m, they were eventually pipped to his signature by Real Madrid, already in the midst of their “Galácticos”-era.

Perhaps one of the few bright sparks of Baptista’s time with Arsenal, was that it was brief.

Though moments of quality showed themselves, such as when he famously scored 4 goals at Anfield in the League Cup (a feat later matched by Andrey Arshavin) or when he played such a huge part of the team that eventually made its way to the League Cup final.

There was no purchase option in Baptista’s loan, but even if there had been, Arsenal never looked likely to take the offer up. This was the beginning of the cash-strapped early days of the Emirates Stadium and underperforming players would have defined the fine margins Arsenal needed to operate on.

Baptista did fare better at other clubs, such as Roma, Málaga or Cruzeiro, but it’s fair to say that he was not the knight in shining armour that Arsenal fans had hoped for and is unlikely to be remembered for his time in N5.

Eduardo da Silva
Rating: 6/10
The tragedy of Eduardo da Silva’s Arsenal tenure cannot be overstated. If ever there is a talk of unfulfilled potential at the club, Eduardo’s name is often accompanied by the likes of Jack Wilshere or Abou Diaby, but Eduardo’s story is far more tragic.

In the early stages of his Arsenal career, Eduardo looked to be every bit the player Arsenal needed. Often partnering Emmanuel Adebayor in Robin van Persie’s absence, Eduardo was not the out-and-out scorer that Arsenal fans would have liked, but was more in the mould of a Dennis Bergkamp, someone who allowed his natural talent to do the talking and who had a penchant for an assist or to create space, than to find the back of the net, although a fabulous finish away to Manchester City showed just how deadly the Croatian could be.

Whatever early promise Eduardo had shown was cruelly snuffed out. A now infamous leg-break challenge by Birmingham City’s Martin Taylor, broke Eduardo’s left-fibula and caused an open-dislocation of his ankle. The injury that Eduardo suffered was so graphic and so severe that Sky Sports, who were broadcasting the game, refused to show replays of it. The aftermath of this tackle likely had a huge impact in the derailment of Arsenal’s season after that.

The situation was heartbreaking. Eduardo was hundreds of miles away from his family, in a country that he spoke little to none of the language of and who had to relay any comments he could get out between agonised screams to the medical team via Gilberto Silva, the only person in the squad who spoke Portuguese.

Nearly a year later, Eduardo returned to the Arsenal side and though there were some truly mesmeric goals, such as his outside-of-the-boot volley in the FA Cup against Burnley, he never quite returned to that early form.

It seemed like Eduardo was playing with some form of PTSD. There was a certain unwillingness to jump into tackles, an air of someone who would rather give the ball away than risk a repeat of what had happened before.

Eduardo eventually left the club. He eventually returned and scored against Arsenal in two seperate UEFA Champions League matches and received a standing ovation from the fans upon his return and he refused to celebrate out of respect for his former-club.

Whatever can be said of the others on this list, Eduardo’s story is easily the most tragic and the one that everyone will remember as being the most excusable.

Park Chu-young
Rating: 0/10
If you can name a stranger signing in Arsenal history than Park Chu-young, then you’re a shoe-in for the winner’s crown at your local trivia contest.

It’s a signing that even after hundreds of deep-dives, behind the scenes interviews and endless analysis, no one can get to the bottom of. The eternal question that resonates above all others is: “why on earth did Arsenal sign Park Chu-young?”

The tale of Park’s arrival at Arsenal has all the hallmarks of a classic transfer story of a club legend. Thought to be joining French side Lille from Monaco, Park was ready in a hotel room, waiting for his medical to begin before he received word that Arsenal had wanted to sign him. Park made the split-second decision that would define his career. He would go to north London and make a name for himself.

Lille scrambled to find out where on earth Park had gone, but couldn’t make contact until he was already boarding the Eurostar to England.

From there, Park lived on in folklore as a David Lynch-esque symbol of surrealism. Making a whopping 7 appearances for the club, of which only 1 was in the Premier League, Park did still manage to join the list of Arsenal goal-scorers after netting in the League Cup over Bolton.

As a South Korean native, Park was legally required to complete military service before the age of 28. Park was able to swerve this particular necessity by registering as a Monaco native, which made him very unpopular back home.

No one quite knows why Park was never given a chance under Arsène Wenger or just what it was in the player that prompted Arsenal to make such a late bid for him, but whatever else can be said of him, he was nothing if not patient.

Lukas Podolski
Rating: 5/10
While his Arsenal career may not have lived up to the promise he had shown at other clubs, Lukas Podolski will always be a fan-favourite, a cult hero who embodied the spirit of Arsenal long after he left.

Podolski’s failure to become an Arsenal legend is not one that can be entirely levelled at the player. It’s fair to say that while Arsène Wenger may have vouched for him enough to buy him, he did not fully trust the German striker and he was largely usurped in the starting XI by Olivier Giroud.

Faced with the prospect of Robin van Persie’s imminent departure to Manchester United, Arsenal needed to act fast and used the guaranteed £25m fee they received for their captain to bring Podolski and Giroud to the club.

Though he was mainly a centre-forward, the majority of Podolski’s Arsenal tenure was spent on the wing. It’s fair to say that this was not his most ideal position, though he still ended his first season with a respectable 11 goals and 16 assists.

There are snippets of Podolski’s time at Arsenal that can be looked back on fondly. Whether it be playing a huge part in the club finally winning the FA Cup after nearly 8 years of hurt or the utter rocket of a left-foot that he possessed.

Like many on this list, we’ll perhaps never really know what it was about Podolski that wasn’t to Wenger’s fancy, but after a fairly unspectacular loan to Inter Milan, Podolski was eventually sold to Galatasaray.

While his time at Arsenal may not have panned out exactly the way he wanted, few could ask for a better cheerleader for a club, especially when he revealed on Twitter that “hell would freeze over” before he joined Tottenham.

Lucas Pérez
Rating: 2/10
Park Chu-young safely has the crown of “the most bizarre Arsenal number 9 signing”, but it’s fair to say that Lucas Pérez isn’t too far behind.

Following a season that had seen the underdog story of Leicester City winning the Premier League, Arsène Wenger knew that he needed to upgrade Arsenal’s attack. Mesut Özil, Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey were creating chances for fun, but the firepower of Alexis Sánchez, Theo Walcott, Olivier Giroud, Yaya Sanogo, Joel Campbell, Chuba Akpom and Danny Welbeck, needed upgrading.

Much like this current summer, Arsenal’s desperation for a striker saw them bid for just about every striker in Europe.

Bids were lodged for Alexandre Lacazette, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (both of whom would later join Arsenal), Álvaro Morata, Karim Benzema and, famously, Jamie Vardy.

Try as they might, Arsenal simply couldn’t prise any of them away from their clubs and eventually, a need became a total desperation.

With only a few days remaining of the window, Arsenal acted fast and bought in Lucas Pérez from Deportivo La Coruña. In hindsight, it seemed like a signing made purely because Pérez had an easily activatable release clause (something required by Spanish employment laws) and because Arsenal could not take the humiliation of not signing a striker when they so obviously needed one.

In fairness to Pérez, you couldn’t accuse him of not forcing his way into the manager’s plans. An assist on his debut for Laurent Koscielny on his debut, was followed by a brace in the League Cup against Nottingham Forest and a hat-trick in the UEFA Champions League against Basel, not to mention a spectacular volley in a memorable 3-3 draw with Bournemouth. But try as he might, Pérez just couldn’t seem to convince Arsène Wenger to take a chance on him.

The season after his arrival, Pérez was eventually loaned back to Deportivo. He was reportedly unhappy with the club after they gave away his shirt humber to the incoming Alexandre Lacazette.

It seemed that Pérez was not in the plans of Unai Emery either. Though he received a run-out in one or two pre-season matches, he was eventually sold to West Ham for around £4m.

Alexandre Lacazette
Rating: 6/10
After years of scouting and several failed attempts to bring him to the club, in the summer of 2017, Arsène Wenger finally got his man.

There can be no doubt that Arsenal were fairly lucky to have landed Lacazette. He was almost destined to join up with Antoine Greizmann at Atlético Madrid, however, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) upheld FIFA’s transfer ban on the Spanish club and Lacazette instead headed for north London.

Lacazette’s time in N5 has been a mixture of ups and downs. He was initially signed to provide a different option upfront than Olivier Giroud.

Where Giroud offered power and an aerial threat, Lacazette provided a dogged determination and a superb technical ability. A modest scoring record in France was enough to have Arsenal fans convinced that, even without the lure of Champions League football, Arsenal could still tempt the crème de la crème.

It’s fair to say that Lacazette did not turn out to be the crème de la crème. While he leaves the club this summer as an admired and well-respected player, there is an overall feeling that the Frenchman never truly lived up to the expectations fans had for him.

Indeed, Lacazette struggled to make much of an impact int he first 6 months that it prompted Arsène Wenger to move for Borussia Dortmund’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

The chemistry between the two on and off the pitch was palpable, but there was simply no escaping the fact that Arsenal didn’t play a style that was conducive to having two elite strikers on the field and while Aubameyang would go onto live up to that title, Lacazette did not.

Under Unai Emery, Lacazette showed fleeting glimpses of quality, but he was still under-performing in the eyes of many.

Since Mikel Arteta’s appointment, Lacazette has operated as more of a false-9 than as an out-and-out striker. While goals are not necessarily expected from a false-9, it’s fair to say that he goal-returns have been worrying nevertheless.

When Aubameyang left the club in January, Lacazette assumed the mantle of club captain and, whatever else can be said of him, he acquitted himself magnificently. He was a calming influence int he dressing room, good with the young players and took a vested interest in the club’s initiatives off the field.

While he leaves this summer with a feeling of unrealised potential, it’s tough to say that he didn’t give his all. A penchant for running on fumes beyond the 60th minute was a hefty price to pay when coupled with his lack of a goal-return.

Lacazette will likely be remembered for his iconic celebrations with Aubameyang, being part of the team that that won a record-extending 14th FA Cup and for his cold-as-ice goals in the north London derby against Tottenham.

Perhaps “curse” is the wrong word to use. Many, such as Eduardo da Silva were products of pure bad luck. There are examples of poor recruitment, such as Park Chu-young or Lucas Pérez who were tasked with living up to a legacy that ill-befitted their talent or of a case of shifting goalposts, as is the case with Lacazette.

The role of the number 9 has changed significantly over the course of the past 25 years.

What was once a “fox in the box” poacher in the mould of Francis Jeffers, soon gave way to the stylish false-9 types that fit players such as Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino.

This summer is another example of how things can and will change for strikers moving forward.

Arsenal will be looking for a striker who can emulate some of the best traits of Alexandre Lacazette, but who can also significantly improve his goal-scoring record. No scout will be able to find such a player without heavy investment.

At the moment, all signs point towards Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus. Though his goal record is hardly perfect, at this point, Mikel Arteta is focused more on a cohesive attacking unit, rather than relying on individual brilliance.

Whether it be Gabriel Jesus or Sassuolo’s Gianluca Scamacca, Eddie Nketiah or even the coveted Lautaro Martínez who wears the number 9 next for Arsenal, it’s fair to say that there is a trend that they will be looking to buck.

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