Two games for Arsenal after the Premier League’s restart and the situation for Mikel Arteta is looking fairly bleak.
Before the lockdown, results suggested they had put their hat in the ring for a Champions League spot, a situation that looked inconceivable when Arteta replaced Unai Emery in December.
However, defeats by Manchester City and Brighton & Hove Albion have now seen the Gunners fall 11 points behind Chelsea and nine adrift of Manchester United and Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Those twin defeats, 3-0 at the Etihad Stadium and 2-1 at the Amex Stadium, in isolation may not have been overly criticised in normal circumstances, however, the manner of both losses were truly unacceptable.
David Luiz’s half-hour of madness cost the North London club dear in their game in hand against City, while they failed to hold on to a second-half lead against a Seagulls side that were winless in 2020 before Saturday.
Barring an encouraging opening half-hour spell against Pep Guardiola’s side, the three-time top-flight champions have been dire and largely listless in every area of the pitch.
One player who has impressed in the opening exchanges is Eddie Nketiah, who surprisingly led the attack when Alexander Lacazette would have been observers’ favourite to start in Manchester.
In a game devoid of any outstanding positives for the away side, as was the same at Brighton at the weekend, the 21-year-old frontman gave as good as he got until his substitution in the 67th minute.
Given the Gunners didn’t offer much in the way of attempts at the City goal (they could only muster three all night), it’s impossible to judge the youngster on his prowess in front of goal, for that game at least.
The England U-21 international got one of the visitors’ trio of attempts as he barely got a whiff of finding the back of the net, not to mention touch the ball inside the outgoing champions’ penalty area.
Still, with four of six ground duels won on the night, the talented striker sacrificed enough in and out of possession and showed he can thrive outside doing only the fancy stuff on the pitch. Only Kieran Tierney (won five duels) was more successful in his individual tussles out of Arsenal's players, and he played for the entirety of the match.
In Arsenal's troubled start back to action, few players have done a lot to commend them, but has Nketiah shown that he can be a key part of the club's future?
There have been positives and negatives in Arteta's time at the club, Nketiah being given a greater role in the team inclusive, but the enormity of the challenges facing the former Man City assistant threatens to overshadow the encouraging signs of the opening few months.
Despite the promising facets of his young frontman’s time in the side, the general feeling is that the 2019 Europa League finalists are at their best when Lacazette leads the attack and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang plays off the Frenchman on the left of the attack.
The former Olympique Lyon striker holds up the ball better and links play smoother than his wet-behind-the-ears teammate and still posts superior underlying numbers than the England youth international.
Lacazette creates one chance per game, while Nketiah manages 0.4 per match. This reflects in their assist numbers: three for the 29-year-old while the youngster is yet to set up a teammate in his embryonic time in the side. The experienced striker’s greater number of appearances (22 to seven) plays to his advantage and maybe fails to present a balanced view as a consequence.
Still, his superiority in possession is the minimum level Nketiah has to reach at least if he’s to have a shot at leading the line at Arsenal in Arteta’s system.
It also goes without saying, but his efficiency in front of goal certainly needs to improve as the Gunners’ number nine.
With Aubameyang’s future in the air, and Lacazette considering his future as well if the club fail to qualify for Champions League football yet again next season, the young Anglo-Ghanaian frontman could find himself playing alongside Gabriel Martinelli, another hugely talented forward, next season.
The Brazilian has caught the eye in his debut season in English football and has impressively become the first Gunners teenager since Nicolas Anelka to hit double figures in one season.
Chances of a consistent pairing with Nketiah remain slim for now given the established duo ahead of them in the pecking order, but the duo must persist in positioning themselves as the successors for their more established teammates.
While the 21-year-old has been decent since Arteta showed belief in him, Nketiah needs to improve his goalscoring and all-round play if he’s to win the hearts of Gooners and prove he can lead the line for years to come.