Eddie Nketiah is used to proving people wrong – and the south London forward is defying the doubters again to become the unlikely hero of Arsenal’s title race.
Nketiah has seized his chance after Gabriel Jesus picked up an injury at the World Cup. He was the match winner in Sunday’s 3-2 win against Manchester United and has six goals in as many games.
His game at the Emirates Stadium took his tally for the season to nine and he is now Arsenal’s top scorer.
Since the World Cup, Marcus Rashford is the only English player to have scored more Premier League goals than Nketiah. Continue his red-hot form and he is in line for an England call-up in March.
His achievements have surprised many. The general view was that the Gunners’ title bid would falter without Jesus in the team. In reality, it has gone blow by blow and Arsenal are now five points ahead of Manchester City with a game in hand.
Arsenal have had to adapt the way they play without Jesus. If there was one positive from his three-month injury lay-off, it was that it came two days before the squad flew to Dubai for a mid-season training camp at the start of December.
That meant manager Mikel Arteta had 10 full days to work with Nketiah in the Middle East to ensure he was ready to lead the line against West Ham on Boxing Day.
The tactical change in the team has been clear. Jesus likes to drift out to the left and swap places with Gabriel Martinelli, who comes inside. The Brazilian also enjoys dropping deep to link up play, giving Granit Xhaka license and space to come forward from midfield.
Nketiah, on the other hand, is much more of a striker in the penalty box. He keeps his position in the center and Martinelli stays out on the left. Nketiah connects the play but he prefers to do it closer to the goal than Jesus does.
The end result has been Arsenal playing with a No 9 operating higher up the pitch and it is no coincidence that both of Nketiah’s goals on Sunday came inside the six-yard box.
His brilliant form is the result of years of hard work and he has developed his game both physically and technically.
The physical work has been helped by Arsenal’s strength and conditioning coach Sam Wilson. The pair know each other well as Wilson has previously worked with the club’s youth team, where he joined Arsenal around the same time as Nketiah.
Over the past two years, they have worked on a specific program to make Nketiah bigger and stronger, aware that he needed to bulk up to lead the way in the Premier League.
Wilson is a popular member of Arteta’s coaching staff and has even gone on holiday with players to help with their training.
The benefit for Nketiah has been his ability to keep the ball better, with the technical side of his game helped by individual sessions with assistant coach Carlos Cuesta.
Cuesta specializes as an individual development coach, often running sessions at the end of the day. They are video-based, so they don’t affect the players’ physical workload, but they do require them to sacrifice their time.
Nketiah’s form is remarkable when you consider that he could have left Arsenal for free this summer when his contract was set to expire. He chose to sign a new five-year deal and asked for the No14 shirt. As a childhood Arsenal fan, Nketiah wanted to wear the same number as his idol, Thierry Henry, and relished the extra pressure it would bring. The number has added significance as it was also the age Nketiah joined Arsenal after being released by Chelsea.
Arsenal pounced after scout Ian Gilmour asked them to sign him up and Nketiah scored goals for fun at youth level. He is the record goalscorer for England Under-21s with 16 goals in 17 games, but there were doubts about whether he could do it on the senior stage. Ghana, his parents’ country, believes he can and wants Nketiah to represent them.
After starting his career with rejection, Nketiah may suddenly have a big choice on his hands.