Eddie Nketiah plans to use England’s Under-21 European Championship campaign as an opportunity to put a smile back on his face after what he describes as a “difficult” and “frustrating” period at Arsenal.
The striker has been named the Young Lions’ captain for this month’s group stages, which begin against Switzerland at lunchtime tomorrow, and is not worried about a lack of playing time under Mikel Arteta.
He has not started a league game for the Gunners since mid-December and failed to even make the bench in their past eight games. Instead Nketiah has been in the gym while his clubmates have been in action, leading to concerns that he may be undercooked for this tournament.
“It is a part of football but one that obviously you don’t want to be involved in,” he said. “I believe in my ability so obviously I think I am capable of playing and helping the team so obviously it is frustrating not playing but you have to channel that frustration in a good way, use your time wisely to work hard and prepare for when that opportunity arises.
“I am grateful to have this opportunity to play at this tournament, to express myself and have fun, get a smile on my face again and play football. I want to do everything I can to help the team do something special.”
Boothroyd has kept in touch, often messaging Nketiah on Arsenal matchdays to check in on how he is feeling mentally. The striker has appreciated the concern and said that he has been attempting to make the best of the situation by focusing on improving specific parts of his game.
“It was very nice of Aidy to go out of his way and message me,” Nketiah added. “He’s been great with me. He’s been checking in on me when I’ve not been playing as much.
“I’m really grateful to have that support. It shows what a great person he is, not just as a coach but as a person. When I’m not in the squad, I’m working hard, training like I always would. You get some more time to work on specifics. I’ve been trying to use my time wisely.”
While Nketiah will start against Switzerland, Boothroyd conceded that he is wary of managing the leading goalscorer’s playing minutes with three games in the space of seven days.
England face Portugal on Sunday before closing the group stage against Croatia on Wednesday evening. Mason Greenwood has returned to Manchester United with an injury, leaving Rhian Brewster of Sheffield United as the other striker option in the squad.
“I do have some concerns and we’ve had to make sure we look after him in terms of his training,” Boothroyd said of his captain. “I’ve spoken to him a couple of times on a Saturday afternoon to see how he’s doing, because he’s not been in the squad and he’s in the gym.
“Physically, he’s tried to get in the best shape he possibly can for the tournament and he’s enjoying being back with us. He’s a key player for us, he’s a goalscorer and we will manage him and look after him through these games. He will start tomorrow.”