Eddie Nketiah didn’t score but he did pretty much everything else; running behind, failing to hold the ball, jostling, harassing and generally making a nuisance of themselves.
It was Arsenal’s defensive resilience that saw them through to the London Stadium on Sunday, but the 2-1 win over West Ham owes just as much to Nketiah’s overall performance. “The best player on the pitch,” said sky sports expert Graeme Souness.
By the end, the 22-year-old had taken more shots, attempted more passes, had more touches and made more ball recoveries than Alexandre Lacazette has managed in any game this season.
A player who had gone a year without starting a Premier League game before Arsenal’s trip to Southampton three weeks ago suddenly looks key to their hopes of a top-four finish.
What happens beyond remains to be seen. Nketiah is fast approaching the end of his contract at Arsenal and the club have so far failed to tie him down with a new one.
What is certain, however, is that he is making an invaluable contribution here and now.
His brace against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge was the spark of Arsenal’s recent resurgence and his performance away from London on Sunday was arguably even better.
Nketiah’s willingness to stretch the West Ham defense gave Arsenal a “different dimension”, according to Jamie Redknapp, one that was most evident in the second half when West Ham were chasing the game and Arsenal were looking break opportunities.
Nketiah came up against a formidable opponent in Kurt Zouma but caused the West Ham centre-back major problems, cleverly timing his runs from behind and showing speed, strength and composure to carry the ball forward and fire his shots.
He couldn’t quite find the finishes to match the approach play, shooting inches wide on one occasion and seeing Lukasz Fabianski counter him on two more, but the odds showed exactly what Arsenal were missing without a player of his type in mind.
According to Opta, it was only the second Premier League game since the start of the year in which Arsenal have recorded more than one shot from fast breaks – and only the fifth all season.
Sky Sports experts on Nketiah
Jamie Redknapp: “Nketiah has given Arsenal a different dimension. You have to stretch teams and that’s what Nketiah does. He gives the team a release.”
Graeme Souness: “He put himself in the window. If that is his general standard, there will be no shortage of teams willing to take him.
Alan Smith: “Nketiah’s emergence comes at just the right time for Arsenal because Alexandre Lacazette looked like he’s done everything he can do this season. To come in and do what he’s done is fantastic.”
Lacazette, of course, made an important contribution during the return to form following Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s exile in December, providing a string of assists and connecting play effectively in the midfield areas.
But opponents quickly realized his influence between the lines and a player who lacks pace and drive to cause problems behind has found himself struggling to affect plays accordingly.
Nketiah gave Arsenal something different exactly when they needed it and, equally impressive, he also showed an ability to play with his back to goal and hold the ball.
Indeed, while his second-half performance at the London Stadium was all about stretching West Ham and creating counter-attacking chances, his first-half display, against a much deeper defence, showed he was also able to do what Arteta asked before. by Lacazette.
“I think his holdup has improved,” said former Arsenal striker Alan Smith. sky sports. “There were times when he backed up to his man and put his body between the ball and the defender.”
Nketiah won eight out of 10 duels overall – more than Lacazette has won in any game since December – and his touch card showed his contribution all over the pitch. Premier League tracking data also highlighted the physical intensity of his performance, his tally of 24 sprints well above any player on either side.
This physicality is just one of many areas where Nketiah seems to have an edge over Lacazette.
Indeed, in addition to covering considerably more ground than his team-mate, and at a much higher intensity as well, the youngster takes on average more shots, creates more chances and registers more touches in the opposing box every 90 minutes. .
Arteta has expressed his admiration for Nketiah throughout the season. “Eddie knows how much I appreciate him and would love for him to stay at the club,” he said in December. But the striker’s recent impact raises questions about how little use he has made of it before.
“Of course I would like to give more minutes to players who don’t have enough, that’s for sure, regardless of who they are,” Arteta said. sky sports when pressed on the subject last week.
“But the reality is that if someone else is playing it’s for a reason, and the players have to understand that. It’s football, it’s not tennis. It’s not a sport. individual.
“You know you’re going to go through those periods. Then it’s about how you approach them and how you try to change them.”
Arteta felt that Aubameyang was unable – or unwilling – to commit to the change, hence the decision to let him go in January, but Nketiah’s attitude was never put in doubt and Sunday’s clash with Leeds is a reminder that this is not the first time he has had to show patience.
In 2019 it was hoped that a season on loan at Elland Road would provide the first-team exposure he craved, but instead he returned in January having started just two league games in four months.
Nketiah has been a full-fledged player for Arsenal ever since, with his starting opportunities mostly confined to cup competitions, and it’s understandable that he now wants to play a bigger role.
“He wants to play more football,” Arteta added of his contract situation in December, “it has nothing to do with anything else.”
Despite everything he has offered Arsenal recently, it seems unlikely that he will start as regularly as he does now in the long term. With Lacazette also out of contract, at least one new striker is certain to arrive over the summer and Nketiah knows it.
Maybe a good end to the season could persuade him to commit his future to his boyhood club and stay and fight for his place for a bit longer. Maybe Arteta will decide to build his attack around Nketiah rather than a new signing.
If he chooses to leave, as seems most likely at the moment, he will do so after showing Arsenal what he lacked up front. More of the same by the end of the season, starting against Leeds on Sunday, and they will be all the more grateful for his contribution.
Watch Arsenal vs Leeds live on Sky Sports Premier League from 1pm on Sunday; kick off 2 p.m.