On the first day of his first transfer window as Arsenal head coach, Mikel Arteta recalled Eddie Nketiah from what was meant to be a season-long loan to then-Championship club Leeds United. Arteta had been in the job for 12 days.
It was a bold move — one that angered his Elland Road counterpart Marcelo Bielsa and Leeds, who had planned on having Nketiah for the duration of that 2019-20 season. They had invested a substantial amount of money in a loan fee, only to lose the player midway through the season without so much as a refund.
But it was the earliest indication of Arteta’s huge faith in a then 20-year-old Nketiah’s talent.
His admiration for the striker goes back some way — in 2015, while still an Arsenal player, Arteta embarked on coaching courses with the Football Association of Wales. As part of attaining his FAW UEFA Pro Licence, he spent time coaching in the north London club’s Hale End academy.
It was there he first encountered Nketiah — then a slight teenage forward, who impressed with his sharp goalscoring and preternatural confidence. Arteta has believed in him ever since.
Now that faith is being rewarded.
With marquee summer signing Gabriel Jesus sidelined after surgery on a knee injury suffered playing for Brazil at the recent World Cup, Nketiah — now 23 — has stepped up.
His two goals on Sunday against Manchester United, including a last-minute winner, means he has scored 18 times in his past 26 club starts in all competitions — 12 from 13 starts at the Emirates Stadium. Given a prolonged chance in the first team, Nketiah is replicating the goalscoring form that made him a sensation at youth level.
“Something’s happened,” Arsenal’s former record goalscorer Ian Wright said recently on the Arseblog podcast. “Even when you watch him in games — his link-up play, he’s energised, he’s tackling back. He’s doing everything, he’s scoring goals. And you think to yourself, ‘He gets it. Something’s happened’.
“I’m afraid for defences now. The way he finished his second goal against Oxford (in the FA Cup on January 9) said to me, ‘Eddie’s somewhere else. He’s got the swag. Eddie knows he’s The Man right now’, and those two goals against Man United will actually reaffirm that.”
The Athletic investigates how Nketiah has transformed himself from a squad player to one who’s taking centre-stage in a title charge.
Throughout Nketiah’s development, there were concerns over whether he would cope with the physical side of elite football. It was a factor in Chelsea’s decision to release him before Arsenal stepped in and signed him at age 14.
It’s something the club have made a concerted effort to work on, with strength and conditioning coach Sam Wilson taking the lead in helping improve Nketiah’s athleticism and physique.
Away from the training ground, the striker sought to take matters into his own hands. In 2019, Nketiah and his family approached Chris Varnavas of the Athletic Development Club in the Cockfosters district of north London — an independent studio focused on strength, conditioning and personal training.
“Eddie and his family came to our facility,” Varnavas, who worked previously with west London club Queens Park Rangers, tells The Athletic. “It’s a strength and conditioning and personal training studio. Initially, they just wanted to build some muscle and strength, increase his overall speed, power and athleticism.
“There were a lot of changes needed when he started training with us. He didn’t know too much about nutrition or general training — in fairness, he was only 20, 21 at the time.
“We sat down with him and his parents and put a bespoke programme together. We look at nutrition, sleep, and recovery. Obviously, he does a lot of that already at the club, but we find a lot of players are looking for a tailored, individualised approach.
“He was coming to see us regularly and started having good results — and he’s still with us to this day. We’re now seeing all that hard work benefitting his performances, which is great.”
Nketiah certainly cuts a broader, more muscular figure now than he did as a wiry teenager. Part of that is just natural maturation.
“Age is part of it,” admits Varnavas, “but he’s got other players who are from the same age group who haven’t done the extra work, and they’re nowhere near the first team. It was an important part of his career to boost that strength and conditioning and get him where he needed to be.”
By pushing himself outside of club training sessions, Nketiah succeeded where others failed and made the transition to first-team football.
“There was definitely a dedication, commitment and hunger to work hard and better himself every day,” says Varnavas. “He was helped because he had a good family around him who supported him and encouraged him to go down this route.
“It’s amazing to see him doing so well now because we’ve been working behind the scenes for many years.”
Arteta is a manager who does not like to focus on individuals — however, whenever the opportunity has risen, he has tended to heap praise on Nketiah.
Perhaps that’s because he hasn’t always felt able to grant him as much playing time as he’d like.
After Nketiah scored twice in a 4-2 Premier League win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge last April, Arteta said: “If there is one player I have been unfair with, I think it’s him.”
From the moment he returned to the club in December 2019 after three and a half years on Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City coaching staff, Arteta has been insistent that he saw a future for Nketiah at Arsenal. That vision hasn’t always been shared by everybody — and there have been times when Arteta has not followed through on his words of granting him playing time.
Nevertheless, on the training ground, their relationship has always been excellent.
For Nketiah, having a manager who consistently reiterated his faith in him, both privately and publicly, has been hugely valuable. It has provided him with a platform to develop.
Nketiah always had talent, but it was arguably his determination that most helped him secure a future at Arsenal.
“In youth football, you always have players who everybody thinks, ‘This is a special one, he might be able to make it’,” Andries Jonker, former Arsenal academy director told UK newspaper the Daily Mirror in 2020. “I think Reiss Nelson was a great example of that. I saw him first when he was 14 and there was hardly any doubt about it, he was very talented.
“Nketiah was a different story — it wasn’t so easy to see. He was working hard and in fact, there was a discussion in the staff about giving him a scholarship (or not).
“His mentality was the thing that made us decide to give him a chance as a scholar, but he had to go a long way and I always told him, ‘Believe in yourself. If you don’t believe in yourself, no one will believe in you at Arsenal’.”
Nketiah did believe — and his persistence made him hard for Arteta to ignore.
“Eddie is someone that wants to be the best,” the Arsenal manager said last year. “He wants to be the No 9 of this football club, and when he is not playing, he shows you in training — with his level of his training, with his anger in training — that a lot of times, you are wrong.”
Even when Nketiah was out of the team, he was a consummate professional. There’s a clip in Amazon’s All Or Nothing documentary series on life at the club when Albert Sambi Lokonga references a lack of playing time. Nketiah, albeit with a smile on his face, tells the midfielder to “wake up” and “stop feeling sorry for (himself)”.
“That mentality just comes from the way I was raised, the area I grew up in (Lewisham, in south east London),” Nketiah explained in October. “It was always to do the best with whatever situation you’re put in. That’s the way my family have always taught me.”
The tactical side
At their London Colney training ground, Arsenal’s coaching staff have worked tirelessly on transforming Nketiah from academy predator to all-round first-team centre-forward.
He and Arteta both acknowledged the goal-poaching style of play that saw Nketiah set academy and England Under-21 records would not be enough to make him a reliable senior contributor to a top-six club.
There have been training exercises specifically designed to help him replicate receiving the ball under pressure with his back to goal. Video sessions have been undertaken with assistant coach Albert Stuivenberg to instruct him on the areas of the pitch where he can help Arsenal create overloads. This expansion of his game is something Nketiah has worked on almost every day.
Another key message has been the importance of not switching off in games, or simply waiting for the ball to arrive in the penalty area. It has been emphasised that he needs to be on his toes, engaged, for a full 90 minutes. Nketiah has always been someone who can deliver match-winning moments, but Arteta wants him to be someone who contributes throughout the whole game.
“The manager’s helped me a lot in terms of timing and areas to pick up the ball where I can be more effective and play to my strengths,” Nketiah also said in October. “All these little things piece (together) over time and the more you play, the more you can showcase that.”
Nketiah has long been regarded as one of the club’s best natural finishers — perhaps their best. His challenge has been to become a more rounded player.
“Don’t focus too much on scoring goals,” as Stuivenberg told him in the All Or Nothing series. “It will come, it’s part of your nature. Focus on the process.”
The contract Arsenal awarded Nketiah after last season is believed to equate to around £100,000 per week. That figure certainly raised eyebrows for somebody with only 19 Premier League starts — but when the numbers are laid out, the economics of such a decision become clear.
Over the course of a five-year contract, Nketiah’s deal will cost the club approximately £26million ($32.2m).
Arsenal reasoned that to go out and buy a striker equivalent to Nketiah’s ability and potential could cost them substantially more than that, especially once their salary is included in the overall package. So far, he looks a bargain — and as a homegrown goalscorer, is likely to retain significant value were he ever to be sold.
When Arsenal lost Jesus to injury, they chose to stick with Nketiah rather than look to bring in a new centre-forward via the transfer market this month. That decision looks to have been a wise one — and is backed up by research from sports intelligence agency Twenty First Group.
Their work suggests that spending big in this window has a marginal impact on performance in the remainder of a club’s season — a €20million net spend has delivered on average just a 0.03 increase in points per game across the big five leagues since 2015.
Strikers in particular tend to struggle as January signings — 34 per cent, more than one in three, signed in this window don’t score a single goal for their team in the rest of that season (based on those signed by teams in the big five leagues since 2013).
Twenty First Group’s research suggests the gap between a starting player and their replacement is generally smaller than supporters imagine. Fans might talk of a player being “worth 20 points a season”, but the reality is starting players are usually only worth three to five points per season over whoever their direct substitute would be.
In the case of Nketiah, Twenty First Group projected Arsenal would only expect to win one fewer point with him than with Jesus — and if he sustains his current form, would drop to just 0.6 points over half a season. This is partly based on the fact Nketiah’s underlying metrics for xG (expected goals) and shots in the box compare very favourably with Jesus’ numbers.
Nketiah has filled in superbly for Jesus since the season resumed at Christmas following the World Cup break, but we’re barely past halfway in the 2022-23 Premier League, so there are still challenges ahead. The likelihood is that this will be Nketiah’s longest stint as a first-team starter. Can he deliver consistently and prove this to be more than just a purple patch?
Furthermore, when Jesus returns, can Nketiah show himself to be more than just a deputy? Can he continue to contribute and force his way into Arteta’s ‘Plan A’?
“That’s the challenge we all have, not only Eddie: to be not just at that level but at a better level every single day,” says Arteta. “Eddie has been great the way he has responded to the huge challenge and demands since Gabi got injured. We are positive he can still get much better, evolve and still continue to develop.”
There may also be a significant decision on the horizon about his international future.
Ghana, the west African country his parents are from, made overtures to Nketiah about playing for them in last year’s World Cup — an offer that was ultimately rejected.
Earlier this month, England representative Michael Johnson presented Nketiah with a specially-made golden boot to recognise his record-breaking 14 goals in 12 games for the under-21 team.
Love this ❤️
— England (@England) January 13, 2023
“On behalf of the FA, Gareth (Southgate, England’s first-team manager) and the technical director (John McDermott), I just want to say a massive congratulations to you,” said Johnson.
“To break Alan Shearer and Franny Jeffers’ record is not a little thing, so this is a small token to show that you are now the all-time goalscoring record holder for the under-21s. It is a massive achievement and thoroughly deserved.”
In March, Southgate and England face their opening 2024 European Championship qualifiers against Italy and Ukraine. On current form, Nketiah must be in contention for a call-up. In the same international window, Ghana have a pair of Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers against Angola. They would surely love to have Nketiah boosting their attacking options.
The centre-forward may soon face a major decision on where his international future lies.
(Top photo: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images/design: Sam Richardson)
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