Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Eddie’s Brand New Start

In many respects, Eddie Nketiah has been unfortunate during his Arsenal career. Unless you are a bona fide world star in the making, like Saka for example, your prospects as an academy graduate rely on a little serendipity. Essentially, the question will always be ‘what is happening in my position at the point that I am ready to break through?’

Hector Bellerin broke into the Arsenal team relatively easily because he was ready just as Bacary Sagna’s Arsenal sojourn came to an end. A freak injury to Mathieu Debuchy then opened the door further for him. Were Bellerin four or five years older, he would have ‘broken through’ during Bacary Sagna’s pomp and would probably have struggled for minutes.

Ashley Cole was an absolutely stellar talent but he still had, ahem, Sylvinho’s ‘passport issues’ to thank for his ultimate ascent to the number 3 shirt. For Nketiah, he announced himself with a quickfire double at Emirates Stadium in a League Cup victory over Norwich City. That night in October 2017 was wedged almost exactly half-way between the purchases of Alex Lacazette and Pierre Emerick Aubameyang.

Ultimately, those two signings, within a few months of one another, summed up the confusion of the latter Wenger era and hamstrung the club for several years as they considered how to fit these expensive acquisitions into the same line-up. Were Eddie Nketiah four years older, he would have arrived during the Olivier Giroud era.

In 2013-14, Arsenal’s back-up strikers were Yaya Sanogo a Nicklas Bendtner seeing out the final year of his contract and Chuba Akpom. In that team and at that time, it seems likely that Nketiah would have had a better opportunity to establish himself at Arsenal. I have my doubts as to whether he would or could be anything other than a strong back-up / rotation option.

However, the Lacayang logjam meant he could not even establish himself into that still very important role. In the 2019-20 season, he went on loan to Leeds United and struggled to muscle his way into the starting eleven at Elland Road, even if his goals to minutes ratio was decent enough. Trying and failing to unseat Patrick Bamford looked, at the time, like a blot on his CV.

Of course, it turned out that Marcelo Bielsa loved Patrick Bamford. Even when Leeds spent £27m on Rodrigo in the summer of 2020, Bielsa’s love for Bamford remained untainted. It was a unique situation and one, on reflection, that probably bore greater prior research on Arsenal’s part, despite stories about how they grilled Eddie’s suitors when deciding on his loan club for that season.

It was only in the final months, nay weeks, of his most recent Arsenal contract that Nketiah had anything approaching a concerted opportunity to prove his worth. The unceremonious removal of Aubameyang during the January transfer window (along with the loaning out of Flo Balogun) opened up a viable squad spot for Eddie.

Even then, Arteta did not seem overly keen on using him. Nketiah’s first appearance of the Premier League season was as a substitute in the 3-2 defeat at Old Trafford in December. Prior to that, he hadn’t even made the bench in 11 of the first 12 Premier League games. Following the release of Auba in January, Nketiah managed 100 minutes across nine substitute appearances up to and including the miserable defeat at Selhurst Park on April 4th. When Arsenal went down to ten men during the first half away at Liverpool in the League Cup in January, it was Nketiah who was sacrificed.

He scored five goals in his final eight games of the campaign and relegated Lacazette to the role of infrequent substitute. Had Auba not irritated Arteta to the point of separation, he would have likely eaten up Nketiah’s minutes and if the Gabonese had scored five goals in the final eight games, we would probably have considered that a return to form.

Despite Nketiah having been with the club since he was 14, we are still dealing in small sample sizes when assessing his level. He only has 19 Premier League starts. To a large extent, the new five-year contract he has earned represents a gamble and a bit of a shot in the dark. However, what is clear from the player’s point of view, is that the decks have finally cleared for him.

Lacazette and Aubameyang are gone, Balogun is not yet ready to challenge, there will almost certainly be another centre-forward purchase. I would imagine that, from the club’s perspective, tying Nketiah down is part of the reality of qualifying for the Europa League as opposed to the Champions League.

Not only is tying Eddie down cheaper than recruiting on the open market (even given the player’s contract situation) but the Europa League means the club has game time to offer him immediately. In a timeline where Arsenal played Europa League or Europa Conference League football last season, Nketiah would have played a lot more football.

He might even have done enough in European competition to convince Arteta to play him ahead of Lacazette sooner. For Nketiah, in a very strange but very real way, this contract really marks the start of his Arsenal career- it is certainly a new start in any case. I am sure that he has been told to expect competition in the shape of a more senior forward this summer but equally sure he will have been given some assurances over his status.

It is to Nketiah’s credit that he still backs himself up against that kind of competition. If he only has one striker to compete with, as opposed to two, his status is already increased. A more cynical read is that he didn’t receive a better offer- in terms of salary or playing time- from another club. From Arsenal’s perspective, it is difficult to appraise the decision until we see what the attack looks like on September 1st.

They will certainly sign another centre-forward, if they sign another goal scoring wide player, for example, on top of that, the call makes a lot more sense. Nketiah plus one probably isn’t going to give the team the number of goals they really want unless there continue to be big improvements in the numbers of Saka, Smith Rowe and Martinelli.

Last week I wrote about the wild swing in Arteta’s appraisal of his squad players, who seem to move between indispensable and unusable very swiftly based on small sample sizes. A five-year contract means the manager has made his mind up about Eddie and that his feelings are slightly different to what they were just eight to ten weeks ago.

While it is true that Arteta always talked up Eddie’s potential, the devil is always in the detail and the only detail worth a damn if you want to see what a manager thinks of a player is the minutes he gives him. There has definitely been a reappraisal and Nketiah’s late season form will have made the contract a little more expensive. In short, it has been bad process on Arsenal’s part that has led to this result- but that doesn’t mean it has to be an unsuccessful decision in the long-term.

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