The 20-year-old forward has scored three goals in as many matches to headline a pre-season where the youth remain the primary focus
There’s business to be done for Arsenal, and there are few that will argue that point. There are a number of positions that need addressing this summer if Unai Emery’s side hopes to simply compete with the best the Premier League has to offer, let alone overtake them.
It seems that business is coming with William Saliba and Dani Ceballos closing in on moves to the Emirates. It’s much-needed for a club that has mostly dealt with negative headlines, from transfer struggles to ownership’s open letters.
But there are some small reasons for optimism, at least when it comes to what Arsenal already have in camp. One youngster in particular has stood out during the Gunners’ pre-season tour while staking his claim for a chance once Arsenal return from their American trip.
Eddie Nketiah provided a brace in Saturday’s 3-0 victory over Fiorentina at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium, taking his goal tally to three in as many games. Since the start of pre-season, the focus has been on youth for Arsenal with players like Reiss Nelson, Bukayo Saka and new signing Gabriel Martinelli all providing some sort of contribution. But Nketiah’s have been the biggest and brightest of the Gunners’ American adventure thus far.
Nketiah’s first goal came as a result of a wonderful Sead Kolasinac ball, one which left Fiorentina’s defence with few options and the London-born 20-year-old with an entire goal to fire into. It wasn’t a particularly difficult finish or a particularly memorable one, but there’s something to be said about putting yourself in the position and having the composure to score.
The second? Once again, not a masterpiece, as it came at the end of a sequence more fitting of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers that call Bank of America Stadium home. There were a number of potential reasons that referee Marcos Delgado could have called a stop to the play, leaving Fiorentina enraged and storming officials every which way by the time Nketiah fired home a ball from second-half substitute Alexandre Lacazette.
When given the chance, Nketiah has done the job. In his League Cup debut in 2017, he scored within 15 seconds of coming on before firing a second in extra time. In Premier League play, he capped the Gunners’ disappointing campaign with a goal at Burnley in the final match of the season. You can also add in the nine goals in 10 appearances for the Arsenal U-23s last season or the 12 in 13 the season prior.
“I feel like just getting more experience, you actually develop and get more comfortable playing,” Nketiah said. “I feel like as a young player, coming into the team is always hard, but I feel like I’m at a good stage. I feel comfortable with the team and the team has always made me feel welcome and allowed me to show myself and play well.”
He added: “I feel like a lot of us have had chances and I think the team has done well, the younger boys have done well, and we can all be proud of ourselves. It’s nice to get chances and show what you can do because you want to be playing every week in the starting XI, and these types of games can help you make the case for that.”
Nketiah has made that case to Emery. His preseason performances have been a sign of progress and further proof that he should be given the chance to earn at least a bit-part role to start the campaign. His first loan move could come in January, if first-team football proves a step too far, but his pre-season efforts have shown that step may not be as far as originally expected, especially with an opening in the squad following Danny Welbeck’s Arsenal departure.
Nketiah’s performance on the day was the headliner for the young guns, while Lacazette’s effort was the standout among those that would be considered guaranteed first-teamers. The Frenchman’s late assist on a Joe Willock goal put an exclamation point on a day where he floated around in a more withdraw role, dropping deep to get on the ball and, ultimately, play creator.
“Today [Nketiah] played well. He scored two goals for the team, so that is obviously good for us, but he also ran a lot for the team. The team worked a lot for him, so everything is good,” Lacazette said.
“I like to play behind the striker, normally it’s [Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang] or with Mesut [Ozil] behind me, but when I play with someone else I have to play deeper. I like to play with the team, to pick up the ball, so for me it was a good day.”
While Nketiah’s emergence and Lacazette’s quality were certainly comforting signs, it’s a pity for Emery that the two forwards don’t address the team’s biggest issue: the back line.
For the first 15 or so minutes, it felt like another match destined for an Arsenal miscue. Those are normal this time of year; it is preseason after all. But still, there was reason for concern as the issues that plagued the club at the back all last season popped up within seconds.
There was a Nacho Monreal giveaway in the second minute, causing a bit of a scare for the largely pro-Arsenal crowd. Moments later, it was Shkodran Mustafi’s turn to hand the ball to Fiorentina on a platter only for Kolasinac to slide in to save the day and bail out the German centre-back.
Mustafi, in particular, never looked particularly comfortable, even as Fiorentina typically struggled to make much of the chances that did come their way. Arsenal controlled the match, by and large, and that will be a comforting sign considering the youth that started upfront and in the midfield.
A player like Nketiah won’t make the difference between success and failure for Arsenal. He won’t be the one responsible for completing this Arsenal rebuild or pushing them back into a Champions League place. Those responsibilities will ultimately fall to the high-priced veterans ahead of him and the new faces that are expected to be added to the squad in the coming days and weeks.
But those responsibilities aren’t what pre-season is about, at least not this one.
This Arsenal pre-season is about finding out what Arsenal already have and what pieces Emery can trust in both the present in the future. In short, it’s about making a mark and, as far as Nketiah is concerned, it’s been mission accomplished.
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