When Lucas Perez’s agent was forced to deny claims his client would not be looking to leave Arsenal on loan in January, it completed a miserable first few months in England for the striker. Injury and the impressive form of his teammates had restricted his truly meaningful playing opportunities to almost nothing. It would never be easy at the Emirates, but it was never meant to be this hard either.
“He has no intention of leaving, Arsenal and Wenger are very happy with him,” said agent Rodrigo Fernandez Llovelle last month. “He’s only thinking about Arsenal at the moment.”
Yet Arsenal could be forgiven for almost forgetting the forward they had purchased in the summer for £17million. Perez had been afforded just 87 Premier League minutes before sustaining an ankle injury against Reading in the EFL Cup. The form of Alexis Sanchez meant his absence was hardly noticed.
Tuesday provided a timely reminder of his talents. The 28-year-old looked off the pace and out of place on his return to the first team in the 2-0 cup defeat to Southampton, but a hat-trick against Basel proved he most certainly has a part to play.
Wenger noted after the game how Perez had “a smell for the goal,” and a perfect conversion rate from three shots certainly supports the argument; he was in the right place, three times. Perez has now scored or assisted a goal every 57 minutes in all competitions.
While Perez’s treble did not match the quality of Alexis Sanchez’s at West Ham, that misses the point. The Spaniard was not signed to be a clone of what Arsenal already had; Wenger pursued him because he offered something different. He is the Plan B Arsenal have missed in recent years, allowing a more direct approach for when their preferred system betrays them. He had the lowest pass percentage of any starter (70.6%), yet scored from all three of his shots.
Wenger described signing Perez as a “gamble” in the summer, and the purchase of the Spaniard remains at odds with the manager’s ethos. This is a player in his late 20s, who has only ever experienced three years playing outside La Liga, and who excels in a different style to which Arsenal play. It looked at one stage as though Wenger had bet on a losing horse, but that gamble may yet pay off.
That the Spaniard’s confidence-boosting performance came from the wing and not as a central striker will delight Wenger. Alex Iwobi scored his first goal of the season in the Basel victory, but his recent form remains a problem. And Theo Walcott has scored one goal and provided no assists in his last five league appearances. Their decline has coincided perfectly with Perez’s return.
Perez joined Arsenal under no illusions. He knew he was not first choice – not in the starting line-up, nor in the eyes of Wenger, who openly sought Jamie Vardy’s signature before looking elsewhere. But the Spaniard knows he must take any opportunity afforded to him. At least for now, he can spend a few days at the forefront of Arsenal’s thoughts.