The unfortunate injury to Danny Welbeck has ramifications elsewhere for Unai Emery and his team selection. While we do not yet know the severity of Welbeck’s injury, it has been described as “significant,” and one would expect Welbeck to miss most of the rest of the season. This presents a dilemma for Unai Emery, for Welbeck has become a key squad player after a late return following his participation in the World Cup. Welbeck has started just once in the Premier League, but has been a substitute seven times, with his versatility useful, given that he can play as a wide forward, as well as his security on the ball. Emery will need to find a new solution to take up the minutes that Welbeck has accrued this season, as an extra attacking option, or to rest either Lacazette or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
One internal solution is Eddie Nketiah, who had been poised to come on last night before Stephan Lichtsteiner’s hamstring went. Nketiah, who made several appearances for Arsenal last season, hasn’t made a first-team appearance yet this season, with Emery preferring to use one of his star strikers in League Cup or Europa League games if he needed to make a change. Indeed, Arsenal are now in a position where they very quickly need to figure out if Nketiah can be an asset for the rest of the season, which is somewhat frustrating.
One of the advantages of competing in the Europa League for Arsenal is they have the ability to give young players minutes in competitive games—fixtures that are more tough than what they face in the U-23 league and matter more than the Checkatrade Cup, a competition that has been completely devalued. Emery has done well in the midfield in that regard: Mattéo Guendouzi has played regularly throughout the season, and Emile Smith Rowe has scored twice in this campaign as he gets acclimated to first team football. In attack, though, Emery has relied upon first-team players.
There is perhaps rationale behind that. Maybe Nketiah has not impressed in training. Maybe Emery doesn’t feel he’s ready. If that is the case, though, then Nketiah shouldn’t be at Arsenal right now; he should be on loan, getting game time. While Nketiah has not done much outside of the debut double against Norwich, he has shown through his endeavors for England U-21s and the Arsenal youth team that he is too good for youth team football. Furthermore, there is a chance that his development stalls.
There have been chances for Nketiah to get game time. He could’ve come on against Blackpool instead of Aubameyang. Aubameyang likely came on because Arsenal were defending a one-goal lead and were down to 10; an understandable decision, but also a chance where you could learn about Nketiah’s decision making in a difficult circumstance. Or Nketiah could’ve come on last night when Welbeck was injured, with Aubameyang left in reserve if needed. While there is an argument to needing to use Aubameyang or Lacazette if one of them isn’t playing, that argument falls flat when both are playing regularly. The minutes Nketiah gets at this level are infinitely more valuable to his development as a player, at this stage, than they are to an experienced international striker.
With Welbeck running down his contract, figuring out if Nketiah was ready to be the backup striker was already crucial. With Welbeck now out, the importance has increased ten-fold. Replacing Welbeck externally will be difficult; it will be a hard sell to bring a striker in to be a backup. In that sense that is why Welbeck has been so valuable; he was happy to play a bit-part role. Now, with Welbeck out, the task for Unai Emery is to find someone else who can play a similar role, and his first step in completing that task is figuring out if Eddie Nketiah can.