Eddie Nketiah has shown he is a lot more than a fox in the box and he deserves a great deal of praise. As does Mikel Arteta, who was desperate to keep hold of the Arsenal youth graduate.
Edward Keddar Nketiah has been with Arsenal since the age of 16. His Arsenal debut came in September 2017 when he came off the bench in the 89th minute of the Gunners’ Europa League match against BATE Borisov; his first goal for the club came in the Carabao Cup against Norwich City at the age of 18, less than a month after his debut.
Introduced in the 85th minute, Nketiah scored with his first touch to send the clash to extra-time before netting the winning goal in the 96th minute. The world was at his feet…but he didn’t smash it into the back of the net until last year.
Nketiah has always been a clinical finisher, but many thought he was just that. Despite a superb goalscoring record at youth level for both club and country, minutes were very hard to come by. Of course, he was young and Arsenal had Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. A loan made sense and joining Leeds United for the 2019/20 season to play under Marcelo Bielsa was definitely a sensible move. Or so it seemed. But he could not become Bielsa’s first-choice striker ahead of Patrick Bamford and returned to Arsenal in January 2020.
But whenever Nketiah played, he was a threat. Saying that, many Arsenal fans – myself included – did not see a long-term future at the Emirates for him. He felt too basic, too much of a classic No. 9, to succeed there.
But Arteta was a big fan of Nketiah from day one. The Spaniard started the English youngster in one of his first matches as head coach and admitted he vetoed another loan move after watching him train. Though that didn’t mean he played; he remained behind Lacazette and Aubameyang in the pecking order and Arsenal fans were largely indifferent to his plight.
He voiced his frustrations, but remained motivated. Nketiah told The Beautiful Game Podcast in April 2022 that he knew he wasn’t playing enough and found it difficult seeing players he was captaining at England youth level kick on and play regularly at club level.
An Arsenal contract extension looked unlikely. He was strongly linked with Newcastle United and Crystal Palace, but Mikel Arteta frequently voiced his admiration and how much he hoped Nketiah would commit his future to the Gunners. Fans were a tad confused to see Arteta so desperate to keep hold of the player, but this was another masterful piece of management. Supporters were once confused by Gabriel Martinelli’s lack of game time and were annoyed to see William Saliba loaned out for the 21/22 campaign. We were wrong.
Nketiah was given a consistent run in the side for the first time in his professional career at the end of last season. He took his chance and repaid Arteta’s faith. Braces against Leeds and Chelsea as well as a goal against Everton on the final day saw him start to win fans over. He was finally given a chance and was brilliant. Fans had been far too quick to write him off.
Nketiah was handed the No. 14 shirt when he signed a new five-year deal in June. He obviously knew Arteta wanted a new striker after the exits of Aubameyang and Lacazette, and was probably aware that he would remain the second-choice No. 9.
But with the Gunners back in the Europa League, Nketiah also knew he would get plenty of game time, though his first Premier League start did not come until Boxing Day with Gabriel Jesus injured. He scored that day, and then in the next game, before bagging a hugely important brace against Manchester United on Sunday with a double in the FA Cup against Oxford United sandwiched between those fixtures.
Summer signing Gabriel Jesus remains out until March. When he sustained his injury, fans and pundits feared the worst. After saying in June there is “absolutely no chance” Nketiah would lead Arsenal to the top four, Paul Merson again said in December that Arsenal would finish outside the Champions League places if they do not sign a new striker in the winter transfer window. The Gunners were top of the Premier League with one loss from 14 games at that point. Three weeks later Merson praised Nketiah for his form after remaining “patient”.
There are no longer any worries about Nketiah; Arteta has been proven right once again. Jesus was arguably Arsenal’s best player before the World Cup but the roles may well be reversed when he is fully fit, with the Brazilian playing back-up to the England hopeful.
Nketiah deserves this. While there has been a bit of luck involved with Aubameyang being ostracised and offloaded by Arteta, Nketiah has always trained well, convincing Arteta and former captain Lacazette that he would come good if given enough game time from his work at London Colney alone. And just like that, all it has taken for Nketiah to show he is good at football is the chance to actually play football. He has been given two proper opportunities in his whole Arsenal career – now and at the end of last season – and he has been superb both times.
Merson was right about one thing, though. Nketiah has been patient, and has always had the correct mindset. In the All or Nothing documentary, an encounter with Albert Sambi Lokonga was particularly telling about Nketiah’s character. In the canteen, Lokonga was complaining about not playing. Nketiah told him: “So what my friend? You think you are the f***ing only one not playing my friend huh? Stop feeling sorry for yourself and f***ing wake up.”
Nketiah is now leading the line with so much confidence having improved his overall game. Admittedly, I thought Nketiah did not offer anything more than goals. Admittedly, again, I was very wrong. He has gone from a boy to a man. He is big and strong, can hold the ball up, can link up, has pace, is direct with the ball, and can score with his head or either foot. What more do you need from your striker?
A year on from Arteta publicly stating how highly he rated Nketiah, with fans not convinced, the Arsenal fanbase will take anything their manager says as gospel and probably believe they have the best back-up striker in the Premier League; whether that is Nketiah or Jesus…
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