Eddie Nketiah did not score but he did pretty much everything else; running in behind, coming short to hold the ball up, hustling, harrying and generally making a nuisance of himself.
It was Arsenal’s defensive resilience that pulled them through at the London Stadium on Sunday but the 2-1 win over West Ham owed just as much to Nketiah’s all-round performance. “The best player on the pitch,” said Sky Sports pundit 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 all season.
A player who had gone a year without starting a Premier League fixture before Arsenal’s trip to Southampton three weeks ago suddenly looks key to their hopes of securing a top-four finish.
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What happens beyond that remains to be seen. Nketiah is fast approaching the end of his contract at Arsenal and the club have so far been unsuccessful in their attempts to tie him to a new one.
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What’s certain, though, is that he is making an invaluable contribution in the here and now.
His double against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge provided the spark for Arsenal’s recent resurgence and his display on the other side of London on Sunday was arguably even better.
Nketiah’s willingness to stretch West Ham’s defence gave Arsenal a “different dimension”, according to Jamie Redknapp, one which was most evident during the second half, when West Ham were chasing the game and Arsenal were looking for opportunities to break.
Nketiah was up against a formidable opponent in Kurt Zouma but he caused the West Ham centre-back major problems, timing his runs in behind intelligently and showing speed, strength and composure to carry the ball forward and get his shots off.
Image: Mohamed Elneny's ball over the top sends Nketiah sprinting through on goal
Image: Nketiah is released by Martin Odegaard as Arsenal launch another break
Image: Nketiah runs in behind having latched onto a wayward West Ham pass
He could not quite find the finishes to match the approach play, firing inches wide on one occasion and seeing Lukasz Fabianski thwart him on two others, but the chances showed exactly what Arsenal lacked without a player of his type leading the line.
According to Opta, it was only the second Premier League game since the turn of the year in which Arsenal have registered more than one shot from fast breaks – and only the fifth all season.
Sky Sports pundits on Nketiah
Jamie Redknapp: “Nketiah has given Arsenal a different dimension.You need to stretch teams and that is what Nketiah does. He gives the team a release.”
Graeme Souness: “He’s put himself in the shop window. If that is his general standard, he will not be short of teams wanting to take him.”
Alan Smith: “Nketiah’s emergence has come just at the right time for Arsenal because Alexandre Lacazette looked like he’d done all he could do this season. To come in and do what he’s done is fantastic.”
Lacazette, of course, made an important contribution during the upturn in form which followed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s exile from the side in December, providing a string of assists and linking the play effectively in midfield areas.
But opponents soon cottoned on to his influence between the lines and a player who lacks the pace and dynamism to cause problems in behind found himself struggling to affect games as a result.
Nketiah gave Arsenal something different exactly when they needed it and, just as impressively, he has also shown an aptitude for playing with his back to goal and holding the ball up.
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 is also capable of doing the things Arteta was previously asking of Lacazette.
“I think his hold up play has got better,” said former Arsenal striker Alan Smith on Sky Sports. “There were times when he was backing into his man and getting his body in between ball and defender.”
Nketiah won eight of out of 10 duels overall – more than Lacazette has won in any game since December – and his touch map showed his contribution all over the pitch. Premier League tracking data underlined the physical intensity of his performance too, his total of 24 sprints far higher than any player on either side.
That physicality is just one of many areas in which Nketiah appears to have an edge on Lacazette.
Indeed, in addition to covering considerably more ground than his fellow striker, and at far greater intensity too, the youngster averages more shots, creates more chances and registers more touches in the opposition box per 90 minutes.
Arteta has been vocal in his admiration for Nketiah throughout the season. “Eddie knows how much I rate him and I would like him to stay at the club,” he said in December. But the striker’s recent impact does beg questions over how little he used him before that.
“Of course, I would like to give more minutes to the players that haven’t had enough, that’s for sure, independently of who they are,” Arteta told Sky Sports when pressed on the subject last week.
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“But the reality is that if someone else is playing, it is for a reason, and the players need to understand that. This is football, it is not tennis. It is not an individual sport.
“You know that you are going to go through these periods. Then it’s about how you go about them and how you try to change them.”
Arteta felt Aubameyang was unable – or unwilling – to commit to that change, hence the decision to let him go in January, but Nketiah’s attitude has never been in doubt and Sunday’s clash with Leeds is a reminder this is not the first time he has had to show patience.
FREE TO WATCH: Highlights of Arsenal’s win against West Ham
Back in 2019, it was hoped a season on loan at Elland Road would provide the first-team exposure he craved, but instead he returned in January having only started two league games in four months.
Nketiah has been a bit-part player for Arsenal ever since, his starting opportunities mostly limited to the cup competitions, and it is understandable that he now wants a bigger role for himself.
“He wants to play more football,” added Arteta on his contract situation in December, “it’s nothing to do with anything else.”
For all he has offered Arsenal recently though, there seems little prospect of him starting as regularly as he is now in the long-term. With Lacazette also out of contract, at least one new striker is certain to arrive during the summer and Nketiah knows it.
Image: Nketiah showed a combative side during the win over West Ham
Perhaps a strong finish to the season could persuade him to commit his future to his boyhood club and stay and fight for his place for a little longer. Perhaps Arteta will decide to construct his attack around Nketiah rather than a new signing.
If he does choose to depart though, as looks most likely right now, then he will do so having shown Arsenal what they lacked up front. More of the same between now and 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 2pm
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