Nketiah gets his chance
At the start of the game against Fulham it seemed as though Eddie Nketiah’s Arsenal career was in its last embers.
With the return to fitness of Gabriel Martinelli and the contract extension offered to Folarin Balogun – who was in attendance at the Emirates for the match – it seemed as though the England Under-21 international was firmly down the Gunners pecking order.
By the end of it though he may well have emerged as the first choice available centre forward going into next Friday’s fixture with Everton.
With Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang still recovering from malaria and Alexandre Lacazette pulling up with a hamstring injury in the second half of Sunday’s match, the door that seemed to be firmly shut for Nketiah has suddenly burst open.
In his limited exposure to the first team, the 21-year-old didn’t exactly suggest that Mikel Arteta had made a massive mistake in not starting him since January.
His hold up play – an area of his game that has often been sighted as something he needs to work on – was somewhat lacking, while he missed two decent opportunities.
To be fair to him though it’s harsh to be overly critical of a player who has played just 21 minutes of senior football since the turn of the year before Sunday’s match.
How can he be expected to establish himself at senior level if he’s not given the chances?
But with a poacher’s finish right at the death Nketiah was able to show what the skillset he can offer to the Arsenal first team when he is sharp and at his best.
After the game, Arteta seemed delighted for the young striker who has had a difficult 2021.
“Well obviously every player needs minutes and Eddie has been fighting to get more minutes than what he was getting this season,” he said.
“It’s good that when he has the chance to show his ability and his quality that he’s done it.”
This should not be mistaken as an argument for the idea that Nketiah should have been playing more for the Gunners over the past few months.
Aubameyang and Lacazette are the far more established players in the centre forward position while Martinelli hasn’t even been able to get regular game time until very recently.
But after seeming like his time in north London was done and dusted, the 21-year-old potentially has one last opportunity against Everton next week to show Arteta why his long-term future lies at the Emirates.
If he is able to take it then the Gunners could be left rethinking their summer transfer plans.
Midfield too slow
Playing against tightly packed defences like the kind Fulham set up with at the Emirates isn’t exactly anything new for Arsenal.
As one of the Premier League’s elite teams – in name at least if not in table position right now – the Gunners are perfectly used to having to break down low blocks that come and set up at the Emirates.
The formula to breaking it down is just as well known.
Quick, ambitious passing combined with intelligent movement into the minimal spaces to drag players out of position and create scoring opportunities is how you break down these kind of teams.
It was this that was used to such good effect with Lacazette’s opener against Sheffield United, and the kind of football Arsenal almost became famous for under Arsene Wenger.
So with the blueprint so well known it was immensely frustrating to watch the Gunners midfield amble around with the ball knocking it from side to side without offering any real penetration to break through the Cottagers well-organised backline.
It was not just the onlookers who found this annoying to watch though.
On the pitch Hector Bellerin could be seen gesturing passionately to Mohamed Elneny to play the ball forward during an instance in the first half where Emile Smith Rowe had been able to break free from his marker and find space in the final third.
Elneny was not the only one guilty of playing so conservatively but that was one of the most egregious offences on the day.
The difference between this team and the team that broke forward with such pace and intent against Slavia Prague and Sheffield United was the absence of Thomas Partey.
The Ghanaian was understandably rested after starting four matches in a row following the international break and considering his troubled injury record this season.
But when he is not in the side the drop off in quality in central midfield is alarming.
Normally Granit Xhaka‘s presence in the middle of the park can just about make up for it, but with the Swiss international again playing left-back the lethargy of Arsenal’s play was painfully obvious for all to see.
With games like this it becomes increasingly apparent the position the Gunners need to address most desperately in the squad in the transfer window is the lack of depth within their central midfield options.
The position is absolutely vital to the way Arteta wants to play football at the Emirates and without better options in it his project can’t be expected to succeed.
Martinelli frustrates Ceballos
Before the game on Sunday Arteta faced a few questions in the media regarding his cautious approach the development of Martinelli.
“He needs time. He is so willing & so anxious that it can block his development sometimes as well,” said Arteta when trying to explain the steady nature with which the Brazilian had been re-integrated back into the first team.
“Sometimes he won’t understand my decisions but the only reason I make those is to help him, so when he gets the chance to sprint, he can sprint & when he falls, he goes again.
“I want a long run with him, not just a short one & he’s in a better place now.
“There are a few things that have to be better & one of those is to manage when he doesn’t play.
“You have to know how to suffer when you are on the bench. You have to be able to swallow that, all your ego & anger, all your willingness to play the game.”
The inference from Arteta’s comments seem to be that Martinelli’s eagerness to please on the senior stage was himself and the team at times.
The 19-year-old is undoubtedly an emotional player who plays with his heart on his sleeve. Each dribble is life or death, each missed opportunity is treated as a catastrophe and each injury is met with the panicked reaction of a young forward who feels he is making up for lost time.
Perhaps given Arteta’s propensity to play the clearly out of form Willian over Martinelli at times this season, it might have been easy to dismiss his comments as an attempt to justify some selection decisions that were questionable at best.
But during the game against Fulham the young forward gave an exact example of where his desperation to impress with each and every opportunity was causing some problems for himself and the Arsenal team.
Smith Rowe had done brilliantly in just the sixth minute of the game to dribble to the by-line in the Guardiola-esque manner that Arteta has tried to impose upon the Gunners and cut the ball back to unmarked Dani Ceballos who was unmarked on the penalty spot.
As the Spaniard wound up for an easy tap in, it seemed as though Arsenal were on their way to getting the early goal that would break Fulham’s spirit and send them en route to victory.
Instead, though, out of nowhere the tunnel-visioned Martinelli backed on to the ball and swivelled to shoot with far less conviction and power than Ceballos undoubtedly would have managed.
Visibly furious, the Real Madrid loanee held out his in arms frustration and yelled “Gabi, Gabi” questioning why the Brazilian hadn’t left the ball for him to score the far easier chance.
It could be argued that this was just an example of the kind of centre forward play that separates Martinelli out from the other talents in his age groups. Strikers are selfish in their desire to score goals and are generally unapologetic for that.
But with Arteta’s comments earlier in the week, it seemed as though the 19-year-old was proving exactly what his manager had feared would happen with over exposure in the first team.
The decision to steal the ball off his teammates toes smacked of a player more concerned with his own aim to prove himself at senior level than with that of the side.
That may come across as harsh, but it’s this collective mentality that has separated the youngsters who have kept their place in the first team from those who haven’t.
The likes of Bukayo Saka and Smith Rowe have of course caught the eye on an individual basis, but it is their work for the team that Arteta always highlights as the reason for their continues presence in it.
Compare that to someone like Ainsley Maitland-Niles, a player who undoubtedly has the talent to be a regular at the Emirates but has seen his chance seemingly pass him by due to an unwillingness to sacrifice his personal desires to for that of the squad.
There can be no doubting that Martinelli has the potential to not just be an Arsenal great, but a world great, but if he wants to fulfil that promise, then relaxing when given the opportunity and taking opportunities when they come instead of trying to force them will be key.
European Super League creates confusion
It seems somewhat ironic on the day that Arsenal salvaged a 96th-minute equaliser against relegation-bound Fulham that news should emerge that they are one of the teams apparently behind the idea of a European Super League.
According to reports, the Gunners along with fellow their fellow Premier League ‘big six’ members, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus and other big clubs are considering breaking away from the current club footballing system.
The idea would see those household names playing each other in a league that on current form would probably see Arteta’s side somewhere near the bottom.
For his part, the Spaniard seem to have very little knowledge about the proposals that reportedly have the backing of Arsenal’s owner Stan Kroenke.
“I don’t know once I know every detail and I have all the information then I can evaluate and give you my opinion,” he said when seemingly blindsided by the news in his post-match press conference.
It will be interesting to see whether Arteta, a man who himself spent much of his Premier League career with a team not eligible for the Super League in Everton and has previously spoken for his love of the Premier League’s less glamourous fixtures of the likes against Burnely and West Brom, comes out in favour or against the proposals.
They do place him in a tricky predicament as he will not want to anger the Arsenal ownership but at the same time he’ll be wary of sticking to his own footballing principles.
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If the Gunners were to sign themselves up for the competition it would represent a near-total disregard for the will over their fan base who have consistently overwhelmingly come out against even the hint of a suggestion of a Super League.
The backlash would likely fall on the players and the coaching staff as the most accessible representatives of the club, no doubt leading to scenes that surely all parties will want to avoid.
The proposals represent an affront to the footballing system as we know it and potentially a turning point from which the game could struggle to return.