It was a goal that deserved to win a game let alone half a deficit, but Lucas Perez's sumptuous volley in Arsenal's 3-3 draw with Bournemouth last week continued the Spaniard's ongoing attempts to adjust to the rigours of the Premier League. The 28-year-old was a surprise acquisition from Deportivo La Coruna over the summer after the Gunners failed to secure the services of Jamie Vardy from Leicester, with Arsene Wenger feeling the squad required a direct attacking threat to help add another dimension to the final third.
Vardy's made a career of hanging off the shoulder of the last defender and maximising his pace behind the line with Perez offering a similar threat for Wenger. A forgettable debut against Southampton wasn't ideal, neither was a subsequent injury that limited his initial impact in the capital. Yet, he's beginning to show signs that he's not only adjusting to English football, but that he warrants a regular starting spot on the flank.
Perez followed up his stunning strike against Bournemouth with a fine assist late on in Arsenal's 2-1 FA Cup win at Preston North End on Saturday evening. While he has hardly set the Premier League alight following his summer arrival, the Spaniard is beginning to show signs that he is deserving of more playing time under Wenger. A hat trick in the 4-1 win at Basel last month, in turn earning him a WhoScored rating of 9.11 and the man of the match award, has been the highlight of his Arsenal career to date and he is starting to build on that good showing in Switzerland.
It’s come at a crucial time for Arsenal as well. Theo Walcott started the campaign brightly, only for his form to dip and injuries to limit his influence, while Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has struggled to come of age once more. With a lack of consistency on the right flank, Perez is presented with the chance to nail down a regular starting spot. Indeed, his three starts on the right in the league, Europe and FA Cup have yielded three goals, one assist and a WhoScored rating of 7.90 this season.
Factoring in Danny Welbeck’s return from injury and competition for a starting spot in the Arsenal attack is fiercer than ever, which means Perez has hit a purple patch at just the right time in order to ensure he isn't at the back of the manager's mind. While an underwhelming showing in the New Year’s Day win over Crystal Palace was a slight setback, a lack of playing time and as such consistency with teammates means a sub-par showing was always on the cards.
His display against Preston, however, should certainly boost not only his confidence, but Wenger’s as well, with the Frenchman safe in the knowledge that he can rely on Perez on the right when required. His directness was a huge asset in Saturday’s evening kick off with the former Deportivo man completing more dribbles (3) than any other player in the match. Two key passes and three shots highlighted a willingness to not only create for others, but go for goal himself with this unpredictability in the final third an added bonus for the Gunners.
69 touches for a player starting out wide is also a respectable return, with Perez a handy outlet for his teammates where needed. Despite an indifferent start to life in London, Perez is still confident enough to show for the ball and be in possession and it’s this mental toughness that will serve him well in the future. Wenger has had long-term issues in finding a first team regular on the right flank, but it could well be that Perez is the solution to this problem.
While he largely operated as a striker for Deportivo last term, Wenger’s frontline options of Alexis Sanchez and Olivier Giroud - not to mention the return of Welbeck - mean Perez will likely be considered a wide option for the Arsenal manager, at least for the time being. However, his versatility is an added boost for Wenger and Arsenal. An ability to drift across the final third means the Gunners don’t have to move away from their fluid approach to attacking opponents when Perez features.
Perez was deemed an underwhelming signing in the summer, but he offers directness out wide and creativity to match, meaning he can beat a man and then set up a chance for a teammate with ease. A strong performance on Saturday only boosts his ever-growing reputation at the Emirates and it wouldn’t be a shock to see him rewarded with an extended run in the starting XI, starting with Saturday’s trip to Swansea.