Arsenal’s Eddie Nketiah is proving his doubters wrong
With every game that passes, Eddie Nketiah looks like he belongs leading the line for Arsenal. It hasn’t been the smoothest journey to arrive at this point, but the striker finds himself regularly scoring goals for the best team in the country, and that is a credit to his quality, work ethic and mentality. The team’s recent success has meant that the masses find themselves paying much more attention to Mikel Arteta’s judgments – he has continually vindicated himself through the massive decisions he’s made surrounding contract terminations and recruitment, for example. His decision to re-sign Nketiah was the latest in a string of smart decisions.
What those who followed the Arsenal rise closely will remember is that from day one Arteta was desperate to keep Nketiah. Back in March 2021, the Arsenal boss remarked on just how difficult it was to leave Nketiah out of the team:
“It hurts as well because of how Eddie behaves and trains every day…He’s a joy to work with and he deserves minutes and if he doesn’t get it, it’s my fault” (arsenal.com).
Nketiah could have easily left the club in the summer. If reported interest is to be believed, there were domestic and European suitors queuing up to offer regular, top flight football to the England U21 record goalscorer. The fact is that he believed in his ability to make an impact at Arsenal and had the backing and support of everyone at the club. It cannot have been easy for him to be limited to Premier League sub appearances and Europa League starts with the second string having signed a bumper new deal over the summer. That’s without considering how well the team has performed in his absence, in a start to the season that nobody external to the club could have fathomed. It is a credit to Nketiah as a person that we are now seeing the fruits of the hard work he has put in behind the scenes. Many worried about the impact losing Gabriel Jesus would have on the team’s flying start such is the transformational effect he has had on the Gunners, but the way Nketiah is playing is placing doubts in the heads of sceptics as to who deserves that starting berth when the Brazilian returns next month.
So, what is it about Nketiah on the pitch that makes him so impressive? Since returning to Premier League football after the World Cup, where first-choice striker Jesus suffered a serious injury to his knee, Nketiah has scored 4 goals in as many games in all competitions. He’s shown a ruthlessness in his desire to get into the box and ultimately score goals, and in such a short space of time he’s shown fans his full finishing repertoire.
There was the sharpness and instinct to react first from Martinelli’s saved effort at the Amex. Monday’s FA Cup tie at Oxford saw the striker net a brace, rounding the keeper after latching onto Fabio Vieira’s pass in behind for his first before he deftly lifted the ball over MacGinty to seal a brace and the tie for Arsenal. The best of them all came on Boxing Day, as he used his body and momentum with ballerina-like elegance to pirouette a floundering Thilo Kehrer before composing himself and finding the bottom corner with a scary familiarity.
His predatory nature in front of goal was never the facet of his game which the naysayers doubted, though. It was his all-round centre forward contribution, something at which Jesus has shown himself to be incredibly adept. There was scepticism over whether Nketiah would ever be robust enough to play with his back to goal in the Premier League, a role which requires significant amounts of know-how, resilience and plain old strength. The striker’s body transformation over the last few years has been well-documented and is certainly paying dividends, as he has paired his physical development with technical and tactical growth.
The compilation below gives some indication of what Nketiah is capable of when it comes to linking up with his teammates and adding to buildup. It is reductive to consider him solely a finisher. He is comfortable dropping into the midfield or wide areas to link play. He is adept at stretching defences by attacking space in behind and has more than held his own in duels with some of the most physical centre backs in Europe. What’s more is that he can do this comfortably on both feet.
The data somewhat reinforces this point. Although an admittedly small sample size (based on 835 minutes of football), Nketiah ranked highly in Progressive Passes Received, Expected Assisted Goals and Interceptions in the Premier League, 21/22 (fbref). The numbers paint a picture of the multifaceted game Eddie is capable of, and considering these stats are a product of 8 starts coming in 21 appearances, there is optimism surrounding what the striker could produce with a prolonged run of starts with the first team.
Going into a typically gargantuan North London Derby on Sunday, Arsenal fans can afford to be as confident as they ever have been heading up Seven Sisters road to the home of their bitter rivals. If one month ago they had been presented with a crystal ball that showed them only that Nketiah would be leading the line in the biggest game of the season so far, the reaction would be the polar opposite to what it is now. That is testament to the impression that Arsenal’s number 14 has made since Christmas.
It is probably the biggest game of Eddie’s fledgling career. The spotlight couldn’t be harsher when heading to Spurs whilst mounting a title challenge, and it’ll surely be a strong test of his and Arsenal’s credentials. There is, however, no reason to doubt that he is ready, such is his elite mentality. Judging by Nketiah the man, it would be no surprise if Nketiah the footballer made the difference on Sunday.
As the song goes: Your defence is in trouble, Nketiah in the room.
Andre Mederick, @goonerameds