Mikel Arteta is not always the most forthcoming in press conferences, so it speaks volumes when he brings something up without being prompted. When asked to assess Arsenal’s 1-0 win over Crystal Palace on Monday night, there was just one player who he singled out to be showered with praise.
“We continued playing the way we wanted to, Eddie [Nketiah] earned us the right to go ahead with his action,” he said in his post-match press conference. “We scored the penalty and then we have to play half an hour with 10 men. It’s a conflict we didn’t prepare for but we had to adapt and the players were fantastic. I don’t think we gave anything away. The subs were great, the way they came out, the concentration, the focus, how much they helped the team, the coaching. They changed momentum in many occasions of the game. So really happy.”
Arteta has elevated himself to such a position in the eyes of most Arsenal fans that what he says now is more or less considered gospel. When it comes to Eddie Nketiah though, there are plenty who still have their doubts.
Ever since Gabriel Jesus’ £45million arrival from Manchester City, the accusation has been that Nketiah is not a suitable back up. Many say they would rather have seen Leandro Trossard start these past two matches in the midst of Jesus’ latest injury absence. Shifting Kai Havertz up front has also been suggested, while some think the Gunners are making a mistake by making Folarin Balogun available for sale this summer instead of Nketiah.
Despite these loud discerning voices from sections of the Arsenal fanbase though, Arteta continues to stick his fingers in his ears and persist with the 24-year-old. So what is it that he’s seeing?
A lot of the criticism for Nketiah comes from the idea that he cannot replicate what Jesus does up top. This is probably true. The 24-year-old’s movement is not as menacing as Jesus and statistically he does not create as many chances for his teammates as the Brazilian. This is evidenced by the fact that Nketiah’s expected assists per 90 stands at 0.11, while Jesus’ is up at 0.17 (as per fbRef).
What Nketiah does do though is create opportunities for himself. Many point to Arsenal’s opening goal of the season against Nottingham Forest and cite Gabriel Martinelli’s pirouette turn to get the ball to Nketiah, but the Hale Ender still had plenty to do to get the ball into the net. He rolled a Forest defender and fired a good shot beyond Matt Turner. It’s hard to imagine Jesus operating with this typical type of selfish centre-forward play. That’s not meant as a slight on either. Instead it highlights just how different they are.
One of the themes of Arteta’s press conferences since returning for this season has been the desire to inject a bit of variety into his squad. The Spaniard has twice surprised us with his line ups and insisted that it is his job to do so. Nketiah gives him the opportunity to do that.
It’s certainly true that the 24-year-old should have scored on Monday night. He had two golden chances that could easily have seen Arsenal 2-0 up by the break. The second of these – an attempt to dink Sam Johnstone from inside the six-yard box – was particularly gilt-edged. But those howling for Jesus’ immediate return seem to forget that one of his most deadly sins is his profligacy in front of goal.
With his work rate and link-up play Nketiah is doing a superb job of holding the fort in Jesus’ absence. The reality is that he has made game-winning contributions in both of Arsenal’s games so far. If he keeps that up over the next few weeks, then Arsenal’s title challenge will be off to a pretty good start.
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