Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Eddie’s time to shine

“We have a bow and arrow, and if we aim exactly right, we can strike. It feels like Bayern have a bazooka, so the chances of them striking are much higher.” So said Jurgen Klopp in 2013 while coaching Borussia Dortmund. Klopp has undertaken the challenge of pitting bow and arrow against bazooka once again as manager of a Liverpool team who have been Manchester City’s closest domestic challengers over the last four years.

Arsenal have undertaken that mantle this season, however. Arsenal fans were feeling good about life going into an unprecedented mid-season break with a five-point lead at the top of the table. The chances are still so loaded in Manchester City’s favour that when the Gunners went five points clear with victory at Wolves, the Sky Sports twitter account tweeted, “Are Arsenal title contenders?”

It says everything about how lopsided the odds are in City’s favour that a team with a five-point lead at the summit after 14 games is not even obviously a contender for the league title at this point. One of the things that Arsenal were always going to need to sustain their challenge was a relatively clean bill of health to their key players.

The news that Gabriel Jesus will be laid up for three months with a knee injury means they will not get that. I think you can forgive Arsenal fans a case of the “WHY GOD? WHY”’’s in the immediate aftermath of the news. However, that is the situation and no amount of screaming at the sky will change it (it turns out this Jesus can’t make a miraculous recovery inside three days).

Just last week, I wrote about how much Arsenal are going to need their squad players post World Cup. In that piece, I said of Eddie Nketiah, “Arsenal’s ‘A-Team’ are going to need Nketiah at some point- possibly in their next game. This time our eyes and expectations will be more attuned to Gabriel Jesus and stepping into his shoes will be a stiffer challenge than dislodging Lacazette’s clunky Timberlands.”

How little I knew! The first thing to say is that, on the up side, I do feel a little better about Eddie Nketiah as a back-up to Gabriel Jesus than I do about some of the back-ups to the other team pillars. I am still not sure I know who Bukayo Saka’s deputy is and Mohamed Elneny for Thomas Partey on a long-term basis would, I think, change things more drastically than Nketiah coming in for Jesus does.

The second thing to say is that we cannot and should not expect Eddie Nketiah to come in and do all of the things Gabriel Jesus does. Nketiah is a different player with different qualities and the team are going to have to adapt to them. Nketiah is a better finisher than Jesus, for example, he might score more goals than the Brazilian has managed. His overall influence on Arsenal’s approach play probably won’t be the same, however.

All data from FBRef and is shown per 90Gabriel Jesus 2022-23Eddie Nketiah 2021-22
Attempted passes29.824.7
Assists0.370.11
Passes into the 18-yard area0.890.43
Progressive passes1.851.18
Shot creating actions4.212.81
Dribbles that lead to a shot0.670.54
Tackles won1.190.97
Touches46.838.0

I have used Eddie’s data from last season since that represents his run of starts in the ‘A-Team’ and includes a good sample size (still not an entirely satisfactory one). That is still not a totally favourable framework for him though given that Arsenal are better now than they were at the end of last season and Arsenal’s injury situation in the spring made them far less functional.

Nevertheless, we can see that there will be an overall reduction in influence with Eddie as the main striker. That’s not the same thing as saying he is a bad player, though. Indeed, the one time he had a run in the ‘A-Team’ he did very well, scoring five goals in eight starts. It’s a small sample size and Arteta and Arsenal will have to hope it’s representative.

The coach cannot and will not ask Nketiah to become a different player overnight, that’s not how it works. In Emile Smith Rowe, Arsenal are also introducing another player capable of scoring goals back into their attack as well. Nketiah’s overall contribution is good, it’s just that Gabriel Jesus utterly wrecks the curve when it comes to overall involvement.

The injury should increase the urgency to bring another forward into the fold in January. As I wrote a few weeks ago, the squad needed another forward anyway and I remain absolutely convinced the plan was / is to recruit one. Whether this injury alters the list of targets any, I am not sure.

In essence, I think Arsenal are looking for their version of a Richarlison or a Diogo Jota. A forward who can play all across the forward line without upsetting the balance. Arsenal secured Nketiah to a new contract only a few months ago, it would create trust issues with the player and within the squad if the club decided to entirely replace him at the first sign of trouble.

And Jesus will return (40% of Americans believe some time in the next 50 years), Arsenal need someone who can augment the forward options with and without the Brazilian. A multi-functional attacker would be the blue-sky solution but there are few blue skies in January. Arsenal’s need does nothing to change the market.

In the meantime, what Arteta and Arsenal are going to have to do is to adapt and that means playing to Nketiah’s strengths, delivering him the ball in dangerous areas while making up for the dizzying amount of work Jesus gets through in deeper areas elsewhere. The good thing for Arsenal is that they have a run-up at this.

There are three friendlies to play before West Ham come to the Emirates on Boxing Day. Nketiah is not at the World Cup, he is fresh and very much on notice as to the task that awaits him. Arsenal have time to cut their cloth and the player himself will be, or at least should be, excited and enthused by this challenge.

That he has yet to start a Premier League game this season will be a bone of contention for him. Eddie will be desperate to prove himself again and excited about the prospect of regular football for the next three months, fitness permitting. I don’t think it’s fair to judge him on his performances in the Europa League this season given that he was not always surrounded by Arsenal’s five-star creators.

Wedged between Saka and Martinelli and in front of Odegaard, he scored five in eight in the spring and that’s the form everyone will be hoping he can reprise. Nobody can ask him to assume the form of Gabriel Jesus, as if the Brazilian is some kind of essence or skin and bone casing that Eddie can just assume in his absence, but he does have qualities Arsenal can use, it’s just a case of adjusting muscle memory to use them.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillmanator

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