ddie Nketiah is used to proving people wrong — and the striker from south London is defying the doubters again to become the unlikely hero of Arsenal’s title charge.
Nketiah has seized his chance after Gabriel Jesus suffered an injury at the World Cup. He was the match-winner in Sunday’s 3-2 victory against Manchester United and has six goals in as many games.
His brace at 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 score more Premier League goals than Nketiah. Keep up his red-hot form and he is in line for an England call-up in March.
His performances have taken many by surprise. The general view was that the Gunners’ title bid would falter without Jesus in the team. In reality, it has gone from strength to strength and Arsenal are now five points clear 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 happened 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 shift in the team has been evident. Jesus likes to drift out left and swap positions with Gabriel Martinelli, who comes inside. The Brazilian also enjoys dropping deep to link the play, giving Granit Xhaka licence and space to get forward from midfield.
Nketiah, in contrast, is much more of a penalty-box striker. He holds his position in the middle and Martinelli stays out left. Nketiah does link the play, but he prefers to do that closer to goal than Jesus does.
The end result has been that Arsenal are playing with a No9 who operates higher up the pitch, and it is no coincidence that both 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 previously worked with the club’s youth teams, joining Arsenal around the same time as Nketiah.
Over the past two years, they have worked on a specific programme to make Nketiah bigger and stronger, aware that he needed to bulk up to lead the line 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 hold up the ball better, the technical side of his game having been helped by individual sessions with assistant coach Carlos Cuesta.
Cuesta specialises as an individual development coach, often running sessions at the end of the day. They are video-based, so do not impact the physical workload of the players, but they do require them to sacrifice their time.
Nketiah’s form is remarkable when you consider he could have left Arsenal for free in the summer, when his contract was due to expire. He opted to sign a new five-year deal and asked for the No14 shirt. As a boyhood Arsenal fan, Nketiah wanted to wear the same number as his idol, Thierry Henry, and was happy with the added pressure that would bring. The number has added significance, as it was also the age at which Nketiah joined Arsenal after he had been released by Chelsea.
Arsenal pounced after scout Ian Gilmour told them to snap 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 over whether he could do that on the senior stage. Ghana, the country of his parents, believe he can and want Nketiah to represent them.
After starting his career with rejection, Nketiah may suddenly have a big choice on his hands.
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