Eddie Nketiah is the match-winner Arsenal feared they never had
The crowd was singing his name, the cameras were in his face and, as Eddie Nketiah strode triumphantly towards the touchline after the final whistle, the first person to wrap him up in a bear hug was Gabriel Jesus. Master greets apprentice? Well, perhaps not. These days, it can be hard to tell which is which.
No player has scored more goals for Arsenal this season than Nketiah, the academy graduate who did not start a Premier League game until after the World Cup. That was on December 26, against West Ham United, and it is strange to recall how many people – inside the club and within the fanbase – were worried that Nketiah was not up to the task of replacing the injured Jesus.
Nketiah is making a habit of responding to his critics, though. There is a fire in the belly of this 23-year-old, who was let go by Chelsea at the age of 14 and has been answering his doubters ever since.
Not good enough for Chelsea’s academy? He made it all the way to Arsenal’s first team. Not good enough to be a regular starter under Mikel Arteta? He is thriving for the Premier League’s runaway leaders, a scorer of six goals in his last six matches. Who will dare to doubt him next? And who would bet against him playing for England sooner or later?
At this rate, Nketiah could well end the season with the league winner’s medal hanging around his neck. That truly would be an incredible narrative arc for a young player who, this time last year, seemed to have no future at the club. But Nketiah seized his opportunity at the end of last season, earning a new contract, and he is doing so again now.
Since the World Cup break, Marcus Rashford is the only English striker to have scored more goals in the Premier League. And Rashford is currently regarded as one of the most in-form forwards in the European game, so that is a high bar.
There was once a view that Nketiah did not offer enough beyond goalscoring. Which, in itself, was a strange criticism. After all, what could be more important than putting the ball in the net? But the point stood: Nketiah was always going to be able to score goals, but would he be able to hold the ball, to lead the line, to press and to pass in a way the modern game demands?
His recent performances, including this excellent showing against Manchester United, have proved that Nketiah is a far more multi-dimensional player than most observers believed. Perhaps more so than even Arteta believed. Speaking afterwards, the Arsenal manager could not pretend that he thought Nketiah was capable of performances such as these.
‘What he is doing is incredible – I cannot say we saw that coming’
“What Eddie is doing is incredible,” said Arteta. “I cannot say we saw that coming. We were hoping that he could do it because of the way he is, his mentality, and how his qualities fit in the team. Losing Gabi [Jesus] was a big blow. It is a big blow. But Eddie is responding with the team in an exceptional way.
“He’s a special kid. He’s so loved by everybody at the football club. He’s got a real Arsenal heart and that’s very special.”
Nketiah’s latest two goals only told part of the story of his performance. He completed 17 of his 19 passes (a better completion rate than any other starter) and competed in more duels with United defenders than any other Arsenal player.
It was typical of Nketiah’s goalscoring instincts that both of his goals came from close range. He has added so much to his game in recent months but that instinct in the penalty box remains his most valuable weapon, and it ultimately proved to be the difference in a breathless, brilliant game of football.
On a wider level, Nketiah’s excellence in recent weeks speaks to the slickness of the system around him. When Martin Odegaard, Oleksandr Zinchenko and Bukayo Saka are playing with such invention and class, Nketiah knows that chances will come his way – and there is no one that Arteta would rather receive the ball in front of goal.
This has been an extraordinary and unlikely season so far for Arsenal. It feels fitting, then, that a player like Nketiah has emerged as such an extraordinary and unlikely hero.