Eddie Nketiah’s Arsenal career might be in its final stages. If it is his Arsenal swansong, Nketiah has given Arsenal a blueprint for the future. Nketiah’s two goals against Leeds took him to 4 for the season—as many as Alex Lacazette, who he has replaced in the lineup, and as many as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang managed in 14 Premier League games this season. Yet it is not just Nketiah’s goals that have been notable, but rather, his all around play, which has given Arsenal a different attacking threat.
Nketiah’s inclusion, of course, was down to Lacazette contracting covid. But, since Arsenal started winning again, it has been hard to argue against Nketiah starting, not only because he’s scoring, but because he is an all around threat, giving Arsenal another dimension. Two of his goals, his first against Leeds and the goal against Chelsea, are goals that Arsenal just haven’t scored this season: by putting pressure on defensive players and forcing mistakes in positions close to goal, they have been good scoring chances. They are also the result of unstructured play; they don’t need precise build-up play or passing to be created, but rather, industry and pace. This was missing with Lacazette, who was often too deep to press as high as Nketiah has been able to do so.
Yet, it’s not as if Nketiah is terrible with the ball. He completed 14 of 15 passes against Leeds, including a silky touch before laying the ball off in the buildup for his goal, before making the run into the penalty box. While it is perhaps not exceptionally good link-up play, it’s not a zero.
Indeed, while his all around game is fine, but not elite, he does have an all around game. One of the issues with Lacazette was not that he was linking play and was always deep; it was that he couldn’t really do anything else. When teams wised up to what Lacazette was doing, they started to defend Arsenal differently. For example, when Liverpool visited the Emirates, they doubled up on Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli, and left Lacazette to wander around on the halfway line, safe in the knowledge that he wasn’t going to run behind Virgil van Dijk. When Arsenal lost a raft of first team players to injury, they couldn’t play the game they were playing with Lacazette; and indeed, teams had begun to adjust.
This is where Nketiah’s all around game comes in. He can run in behind. He is dangerous on the counter-attack, as he runs the channels. He sniffs out chances in the penalty box, giving Arsenal another option beyond Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and Emile Smith Rowe. Essentially, he gives Arsenal another attacking run—something they did not have with Lacazette, who made midfield type runs. This can force teams back, and as we saw against Chelsea, simply being able to chase the ball down can lead to goals, as well as forcing teams back.
It may be too late for Nketiah’s Arsenal career, but he could sign off his time at the Emirates by helping the Gunners return to the Champions League—as well as showing what Arsenal need in the future: a forward who can combine, spin, and run in behind, as the Gunners seek to go to the next level.