Eddie Nketiah is a rarity in modern football. Not the complete forward- not to say he’s one-dimensional by any means- but a striker whose game is all about goals.
One of those strikers who makes it look easy, who always finds a way to score. A natural goalscorer whose game, in turn, is easy to quantify.
It’s what makes him such an exciting prospect and why he is so highly regarded by Arsenal fans. His record at youth level is frightening, both at Chelsea and then at Arsenal, scoring 15 times in 16 games for the U18s in 2016-17 in a season that convinced former boss Arsene Wenger to give him first-team minutes.
When the time arrived for Nketiah’s first-team bow, it did not take long for him to make his mark. Having got some Europa League minutes under his belt already against BATE Borisov a month before, he came off the bench against Norwich in the fourth round of the League Cup and instantly turned the game on its head. Fifteen seconds after he stepped onto the field he levelled the scores with five minutes to go, and then put the Gunners ahead in extra time.
When Arsenal needed him, he found a way to deliver. High hopes suddenly exploded into high expectations.
High expectations which Nketiah, largely through a lack of opportunity, has failed to quite meet. Understandable when you consider Unai Emery’s striker options consist of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, but also, perhaps, hugely frustrating for the Lewisham-born forward.
Nketiah will know he needs playing time to develop and at 20 years old he needs minutes now if he is to fulfil his potential- which gives Emery a dilemma.
No doubt Nketiah, a childhood Arsenal fan desperate to make it at the club that gave him an opportunity when Chelsea released him for being ‘too small’, has the talent to make a contribution this coming season- his goalscoring cameo against Bayern Munich this week evidence enough.
Where there is a doubt is whether he will get the minutes to do so, given he played just 62 minutes between January and the end of last season. Emery will, naturally, want to keep Nketiah as a talented back up to his two main men- because Arsenal being Arsenal there’s every chance he’ll be needed- but he will also be aware that for Nketiah’s significant potential to be realised he now needs regular football.
“Eddie”, as the Arsenal fans affectionately refer to him by his first name, is the kind of player who seems destined to have to find a way. He had to find a way back to top-level youth football after being released by Chelsea. He had to find a way to break into the first team set up.
He now has to find a way to become the striker that he seems destined to be, since the days of terrorising defences in under 15’s games and leading the line for Arsenal’s under 23s. The 20-year-old has been linked heavily with a loan move to the Championship, which could be a solution to Emery’s headache.
This week Bristol City were reportedly favourites to sign the youngster, a move that perhaps makes sense for all parties involved. Nketiah will get regular playing time in a team competing in the top half of the table, playing an attractive style of football, in one of the most competitive leagues in the world.
It would be a fantastic education to round off his development and it’s easy to imagine him coming back to Arsenal a much-improved player ready to challenge for a first-team spot. From that perspective, the deal would seem a no brainer.
But the reality could be that following his first goal of pre-season, Emery is reluctant to let him go. After the game against Bayern, the Arsenal head coach spoke highly of Nketiah and hinted he may have a bigger part to play this season.
“We want to use different young players to help. Some players will be with us in pre-season, some players will be with us in the season”, Emery said.
Having failed to make the impact he might have wanted last season, this will be a crucial period for the young striker’s development. Fans would love nothing more than to see one of their own, an academy product, become a mainstay in the coming years.
It is also all too easy to see his development being stunted as he sits third in line behind two top-level strikers.
For Nketiah to flourish he needs minutes- whether that’s at Arsenal or elsewhere is in the hands of Emery, who amongst the difficult job he already has must balance Arsenal’s short term needs and long term future.
For Eddie, the boy who always finds a way, this season could be a tipping point.