Monday, April 22, 2024

Nketiah’s Back in the Room

Eddie Nketiah played 243 of the 360 minutes available in pre-season, not counting the Community Shield. He started games against Nurnberg, Manchester United and Monaco, wearing the captain’s armband in the latter. As well as integrating new players during pre-season, I felt there was a move from Arteta to try to reintegrate players who had been ‘lost’ at the end of last season.

Almost all of Emile Smith Rowe’s pre-season minutes were in one of the number eight roles, all of Fabio Vieira’s were either in the right eight or on the right wing. It seems clear those players were being refitted for a slightly different costume. However, I always felt Nketiah’s prominence in pre-season was about bringing him back into the fold.

When Gabriel Jesus was injured at the World Cup last season, Nketiah came in and, initially, he scored some goals but as the New Year wore on, those goals dried up- for him and the wider team. Leandro Trossard was recruited in January and, playing in more of a false 9 role, the team looked more agile upfront and less predictable.

However, that was not the whole story. Eddie didn’t truly fall out of favour with Arteta, he picked up an ankle injury in February (and given Arteta does have a history of playing players with ‘ailments’ he might well have been carrying it in advance of that) and missed five weeks. In February I observed, perhaps uncharitably, that Martinelli’s output dipped significantly when Jesus came out of the team and picked up again when Trossard began playing at centre-forward.

On reflection I am not sure the situation was as simple as Nketiah coming out of the team leading to a better result. A few weeks later, I wrote about a notable change in the Arsenal frontline with a greater emphasis on overall fluidity, which was especially apparent in the 4-0 home win over Everton in March. Martinelli scored twice in that game, once from a right-wing position and once from a more central position attacking the six-yard area. For the latter effort, he was teed up by substitute Eddie Nketiah.

Alas, Nketiah aggravated his ankle injury in that cameo and didn’t return again until April, by which time Gabriel Jesus was back in the picture. In short, the slightly jarring chemistry between Martinelli and Nketiah might well have been an overall team issue. Fast forward to pre-season and Nketiah was heavily involved, I suspected this was about building the player back up mentally as well as physically.

My impression was redoubled when he was given the captain’s armband for the Emirates Cup fixture against Monaco. In a team that featured Aaron Ramsdale, William Saliba, Thomas Partey, Declan Rice and Takehiro Tomiyasu that did not look like a totally straightforward choice, I think there was a message from the coach therein. Of course, Nketiah didn’t make the cut for the Community Shield starting line-up but I felt that decision was very specific to the opponent.

I think Arteta wanted, firstly, to have a look at Havertz upfront and, secondly, he wanted the option to go over the top of the Manchester City high press to Havertz’s taller frame. Given the prominence given to Eddie in pre-season, I fully expected him to start the first home game against Nottingham Forest and he did, scoring a goal in the process.

Afterwards, Arteta was effusive in his explanation for selecting the academy graduate, “He trained this week like a beast. A lot of players ask: ‘why am I not playing?’, and the thing is that Eddie is telling you: ‘look at all the reasons I’m giving you to play me’. When you play him, after you know you’re going to have that response because he’s not looking for excuses or anything, he’s looking at his own performance and what he can do for the team. This is the example that everyone has to look at.”

It was enough for him to keep his place at Selhurst Park in a very different game against a very different opponent. I must admit that I thought the decision to award Nketiah a new contract last summer had a hint of expedience about it and, had Arsenal qualified for the Champions League, I still wonder whether Arteta would have used the extra money for another forward.

Fast forward a year and even if Gabriel Jesus is injured, Nketiah has far more competition for the centre-forward spot now. Havertz has been trusted there, Leandro Trossard enjoyed an excellent pre-season and Folarin Balogun has returned from loan. The latter is likely to leave for contractual reasons and his desire to be more than a spoke on an attacking wheel but, at the moment, Nketiah is seeing off that competition.

I see the summer and the first two games of this season as a watershed for Eddie. Last season, Arteta didn’t start Nketiah in a league game until Jesus was injured- he was barely even considered a rotation option until the situation demanded he play. Prior to that, Arteta waited for Lacazette’s form to conduct several tours of the u-bend before throwing Nketiah in as a Hail Mary that paid off.

Now, there seems to be a touch more faith from the coach as well as some very pointed attempts to throw some compliments his way. If giving him the captain’s armband against Monaco felt like complimenting his haircut, saying ‘he trained like a beast’ after the Forest game was the footballing equivalent of telling him he looks like he has lost some weight.

The addition of Havertz also offers Nketiah the avenue to another potential partnership. I think the German is often going to pop up in ‘second striker’ positions. Last week, I highlighted how often Havertz was in the box alongside Eddie when the ball was worked to Saka or Odegaard on the right wing. Havertz will certainly be asked to attack that left channel, as Xhaka was.

Nketiah missed two presentable chances against Crystal Palace attacking the right channel (which, you may remember, is where he scored an excellent goal against West Ham from last season). It makes sense for him to prowl that area since Arsenal tend to like to build on that side of the pitch with Saka, Odegaard and Ben White.

For me personally, Nketiah has become the archetypal ‘just when I think I’m out’ player. I have advocated selling him on a few occasions, this summer included. Not forcefully, you understand, I have never considered him a big issue. I have just wondered whether he fits ‘Arteta-ball’ as it were. But during pre-season and the opening weeks of the campaign, I have detected a trust developing from the manager to Eddie that I haven’t perceived before.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillmanator

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