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A fortnight has passed since the orange hue of the North London sun settled on another year of dramatic action. The Gunners fell agonisingly short at the final hurdle, whether that be down to youthful inexperience, tactical naiveté, a lack of quality or an amalgam of those factors is open for debate. Depending on which realm of the twitter landscape you explore, you will hear fair justifications for all those perspectives.
As is increasingly the case in football, everything is in perpetual forward motion, and this includes the evolution of debate. A debate very few expected to arise was around Arsenal’s no.30, Eddie Nketiah. The light in the dark cave that was Arsenal’s end to the season. The Hale End product, the Duracell battery of a forward hemmed in behind club captain Alexandre Lacazette for large swaths of the season, was unleashed due to luck rather than chance. When Arsenal’s no.9 tested positive for COVID, the England u21 record scorer was thrusted into the spotlight against Southampton.
Following the trip to St Mary’s, the then 22-year-old started the remaining 7 league games, notching up 5 goals in the process, including a brace against the club that rejected him as a teenager, Chelsea. Having a centre forward capable of stretching opposition defensive lines felt like a breath of fresh air to the Gunners faithful, particularly having seen the club captain for several months fail to do as much as get onto the end of crosses, let alone convert a chance from open play.
An oft cited point in the continued use of Lacazette over his Hale End counterpart was his link-up play and the attacking threat it allowed Arsenal’s inside forwards (Saka, Martinelli, Smith Rowe). However, this was far more a product of the innovative qualities of the young guns around the Frenchman than it was his innate ability. The forward’s club high seven league assists came from an xA (expected assists) of 1.9, compared to Bukayo Saka’s 6.9 xA (7), and Martin Odegaard’s 6.8 (4).
This is to say, the prolonged use of the 31-year-old over Nketiah was detrimental to the attacking prowess of the Gunner’s, but hindsight is a great thing. Arsenal’s no.30 has shown what an athletic forward can do for the fluidity and overall forward structure of the side, and has been duly rewarded with a new long-term deal.
The stats support what the eye perceives regarding Nketiah.
Besides Nketiah’s evidently contagious pressing (culminating in forcing Leeds Goalkeeper Illan Meslier into a goal-costing mistake against Leeds), there is an intangible quality to Eddie’s play that manifests itself in the stats, fearlessness. Despite having been shunned for large parts of the season in favour of seniority - an action Arteta has since admitted being a mistake – Nketiah was able to come into the side and entirely trust his game.
Not only is his NPxG (Non-penalty expected goals) per 90 in excess of 0.6, but his open play shots a game totals just under three. This is a man with confidence, a man that fully believes that if there is an opening to shoot, he will find the back of the net. The game against West Ham (a) is the best representation of this…
In Figure 1, he receives the ball off the de-facto captain Odegaard, with four West Ham players surrounding him. Turning under pressure, he drives into the space he himself has vacated in dropping deep, driving into the heart of the Hammers defence.
From nothing, Nketiah has been able to manufacture a shot. This is a concoction of the tangible and intangible. The Hale End graduate has the technical ability to receive between the lines, but importantly, the mentality, the unbridled fearlessness, to manufacture a chance for himself. Arsenal sorely missed this lack of hunger in the final third for large swathes of the season.
In the second half of the fixture, Nketiah displayed once again what the Arsenal forward line had been missing – the necessary athleticism to stretch opposition defences. When away from home, particularly when under immense pressure, any aspiring team needs a forward capable of relieving pressure through ball carrying, whether that be winning fouls or dragging the team up the pitch.
Understanding the space in behind the West Ham defence (fig. 3), the Gunners' forward immediately darts towards the vacant London Stadium turf, trusting that Elneny will pick the right pass, which the Egyptian Pirlo duly provides.
In receiving the ball, and thus having stretched the West Ham defence, the Englishman is isolated upfront, with support galaxies away with the team just recently camped in their own defensive third. This is where Nketiah’s technical proficiency in combination with his fearlessness and self-belief come to the fore.
With Kurt Zouma ahead of him, he drives onwards, cutting inside onto his favoured right foot, establishing shooting distance between himself and the Frenchman. Whipping an effort to the far-post, the forward narrowly misses.
However, the fundamental point remains, the underlying metrics support the eye-test. The metrics are a manifestation of intangibles quantified in tangible form. Nketiah’s high performance in NP xG, open play shots, dribbles completed and open play xA is a consequence of his mental fortitude, the intrinsic self-belief that he belongs spearheading the attack for a club that has seen the likes of Thierry Henry, Ian Wright, Robin van Persie, Alexis Sanchez and co. tally up the goals as the attacking focal point.
Of course, the Gunners are in the market for another centre forward, and with Alexandre Lacazette heading towards the exit door, bringing in that forward is of paramount concern to Arteta and his recruitment team. Names ranging from Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus (a man the Spaniard knows well) to Napoli’s Victor Osimhen have been cited as possibilities from various media outlets.
Whatever name the powers at be at N5 opt to don the famous red and white, they will have to vie with Nketiah for a starting birth. In signing his new contract, the diminutive forward didn’t settle for the bench, after all, it was that very issue that delayed his extension for so long. Whichever striker competes with the Englishman will be bringing the best out of him.
As Arsenal pursue a return to the grandest theatre of European football, Nketiah fulfilling his potential is a core piece of the puzzle. The curtains have just settled on the season gone, but things are full steam ahead for the dawn of football’s most demanding domestic spectacle. It’s not in question that signings must be made if Arsenal are to compete with European titans on football’s Mount Olympus come 2023/24, but when the dust settles at the end of next season, the best signing the Gunners may have made could be extending, and polishing, the rough diamond they already had.