Focus on Eddie Nketiah as Arsenal host United
With four goals in five games, the forward has ensured Gabriel Jesus is not missed
Fifteen seconds after Arsene Wenger gave Eddie Nketiah his home debut, the forward scored. That was against Norwich in the 2017 Carabao Cup; Nketiah’s brace fetching a come-from-behind 2-1 win. Arsenal fans edited his Wikipedia page adding Ronaldinho, Kaka, Pele and Maradona’s names to Edward Keddar Nketiah.
Weeks earlier Wenger had given the 18-year-old striker his Europa League debut, away to BATE Borisov. “He has the flair to anticipate when you are in the box,” Wenger said at the time. “That’s a quality you cannot give at that age anymore: you either have it or you don’t.”
On Boxing Day over five years later, with “One Arsene Wenger” reverberating around Emirates to mark Monsieur Arsenal’s first visit since 2018, Nketiah scored with a pirouette that puzzled West Ham’s Thilo Kehrer and pleased his former manager.
In five games since the 2022-23 club season resumed, Nketiah, 23, has scored four goals in all competitions. Put another way, he has scored in all games Arsenal have and in the one they didn’t, a 0-0 draw against Newcastle, Nketiah had the most shots. Such form has ensured that Gabriel Jesus, who was injured in the World Cup, is not missed, and that really is a big deal. Especially because Arsenal had signed the Brazilian to fill the breach after Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette left.
The absence of a top striker hurt Arsenal’s bid to make the Champions League last term. With his industry and ability to play wide and centre, Jesus had quickly become the manager’s and fans’ favourite. And now, he was out till February. Would Arsenal be able to sustain the run that took them to the top when the Premier League paused for the World Cup? Going into Sunday’s home game as Premier League leaders against Manchester United – the only team to have defeated Arsenal in the league -- Nketiah has ensured they would.
Wary of another big-ticket recruitment after the misadventures of Nicolas Pepe and offering Aubameyang a fresh contract, Leandro Trossard has been signed but that is possibly as back-up for Nketiah because Arsenal are alive in three competitions (they could play seven games if they are to win the Europa League and have an FA Cup tie against Manchester City next weekend).
For now, in Nketiah, a product of the club’s Hale End academy, Arsenal trust. They have been doing that since after playing 51 minutes till last February -- and seeking to move as a consequence -- he broke into the first team. Nketiah scored five goals in the last seven league games and 10 in 28 games all competitions in 2021-22 and had one assist. Arsenal had seen enough to offer him a new deal till 2027 last summer and Nketiah, having been with the club since 2015, ignored other offers to stay. Seven goals, including five from five starts, and one assist in 24 games this term shows that the club and player were right in renewing vows.
“Obviously he’s been waiting for this moment. He’s been patient when he needed to be but as well he’s been with the right mindset and preparing himself for this moment…He’s a great finisher,” Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta has said.
With Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka – also an academy product - on either side, Nketiah is likely to be the focal point in a frontline against a Casemiro-less Manchester United in what is after years not a meeting of former powers. Apart from his ability to finish moves – the goals against Oxford United were typical poacher’s strikes, rounding off the keeper for the first and producing a deft placement for the second – Nketiah can drop deep to receive the ball and help beat the press. He also leads the press and in the 2-0 win against Tottenham Hotspur, when Martinelli induced an error from goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, Nketiah was sharp to pounce on it and attempt a shot.
“The foundations of this squad are built on young talent and in particular those who have come through our academy system,” Arsenal technical director Edu has said.
It was there that Nketiah was trained from 2015 after Chelsea released him, one of the reasons being he was too small. The rise of Tammy Abraham, and the fact that at 1.9m he has grown 10cm taller, was another. At Chelsea, Nketiah had impressed Arsenal’s scouts and the youth team and he continued to do that after switching clubs.
“He is a goalscoring machine and the beauty is, he can score with both feet and his head, but he also has great movement,” David Court, who was with Arsenal’s youth development staff, told The Guardian in 2017.
He was loaned to Leeds United where again with Patrick Bamford in form, game time was limited. As it was at Arsenal. But as Arteta said, Nketiah was ready when the opportunity came. Good strikers are supposed to be.