For many a young player, pre-season is the most wonderful time of the year.
More and more, major European clubs embark on elaborate tours in the offseason, keen to both milk and strengthen the appeal of their brands globally. That there happens to be football tacked on to that can seem almost incidental, and the quality of play itself is at the level of exhibition.
However, untainted by the cynicism of it all, fringe young players will often seize the opportunity afforded by a relaxed atmosphere, as well as the unavailability of some of the more established stars, to introduce themselves into the consciousness of the managerial staff.
Last season, Arsenal benefitted from the eye-catching displays of Matteo Guendouzi, a full-haired 19-year-old new signing from the second division in France. Upon his arrival, there was little expectation of him featuring in a prominent fashion in the Premier League; appearances in the Cups and the odd substitute appearance, certainly, but little more.
However, the former Lorient youngster swiftly demonstrated a maturity that few suspected he possessed, impressing the newly situated Unai Emery with his ability to carry the ball through midfield, as well as his composure and eye for a pass. Come the opening day of the season, he suited up to face the reigning champions Manchester City, and then went on to make a further 32 appearances in the English top flight.
This summer’s big success story, however, is one who has been right under the club’s nose, and who stands at a critical juncture in his development with the Gunners.
Eddie Nketiah is a player of whose gifts Arsenal are well aware.
So much so, in fact, that after he was released by Chelsea in 2015, the North London club moved quickly to snap him up. The 20-year-old has caught the eye in the youth set-up, scoring 15 goals in 16 games for the Under-18s in 2016/17, and last season he scored nine goals and laid on a further four in 10 appearances with the Under-23s.
Nketiah, of Ghanaian heritage, made his senior Arsenal debut in September 2017 under Arsene Wenger, and scored his first goals for the club the following month, coming off the bench to force extra-time with a late equalizer in the Fourth Round of the League Cup, before then completing his brace to win it.
At every turn, it would appear he has shown himself capable of scoring goals when called upon. However, his path to minutes as part of the first-team have been complicated, not only by the club’s precarious competitive situation, but by the big money arrival of dashing striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in January 2018.
The Gunners now boast, for all their troubles in other areas of the team, two elite-level strikers in Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, a reality that has effectively blocked off Nketiah and restricted his continued growth.
There was talk of a loan spell at Augsburg back in January, but an injury to Danny Welbeck meant Arsenal would have been left with no cover in the event of an injury to either of their starting forwards and so Nketiah was forced to remain in the club, a ready back-up but rarely glimpsed.
There is reason to believe, however, that this season will afford the promising forward a chance to spread his wings. For one thing, the club’s US tour and the International Champions Cup has seen his best qualities come to the fore: with three goals scored, he is the highest scorer in the competition and is now playing with an assuredness of his place in the team.
His first, against Bayern Munich, saw him arrive at just the right moment to finish off a flowing passing move, while his brace against Fiorentina showcased his composure in front of goal: first, he reacted quickest to a deflected Sead Kolasinac cut-back, shifted the ball onto his stronger foot, before lashing home from close range; then he coolly stroked home from a Lacazette pass to double his side’s lead.
The club’s decision to opt against renewing Danny Welbeck’s contract effectively positions Nketiah as the de-facto third striker in the team, a role that will be crucial to managing the minutes of the starting centre-forwards. With the club competing on four fronts, Nketiah’s coming-of-age in America could not have been better timed, both for him and for the club.
It could also provide an unexpected boon for Ghana, the country of his father.
Nketiah reportedly turned down an approach from Black Stars’ coach Kwesi Appiah back in January, favouring the country of his birth in much the same way as Welbeck, the man whose place he is taking in the Arsenal squad, did. However, his continued growth in North London, coupled with the complicated marriage of convenience between Ghana and the Ayew brothers, means there is a gap to be filled there.
If he could be persuaded to have a change of heart, it would provide a whole new dimension for the national team. If not, Ghana’s appreciation of him will have to be a vicarious one, especially if his performances continue to trend upward.