The League Cup has always been a fertile breeding ground for young English talent. As the country’s top clubs prioritise the Premier League, Champions League and Europa League, the secondary domestic cup competition – it is, after all, still behind the FA Cup in the eyes of many – has provided opportunities for hopeful academy prospects.
However, very few make a tangible impact. Most get minutes on the board before being loaned out and eventually leaving permanently in search of more regular game time. This has often been the case at Arsenal.
Arséne Wenger treats the League Cup as more of a learning exercise than anything else. More than results and performances, it is about resting key players and giving the untried and unknown a chance to strut their stuff, usually against lower league opposition. The latest starlet to be given the nod is Eddie Nketiah, who came on in the 85th minute of their clash with Championship side Norwich City on Tuesday night.
The 18-year-old, born and raised in London, duly rescued Arsenal from an embarrassing exit. At 1-0 down, he found the net after a flick-on from a corner kick to equalise and set up extra time. Then, just six minutes into the third period, he scored the winner, heading home powerfully from another corner.
Normally, dramatic League Cup wins against second tier opposition aren’t something to be celebrated by Gunners fans. But on this occasion, with the hero of the hour a local boy with a promising future and a love of the club since childhood, the noise and fervour was absolutely appropriate. Nketiah’s name was sang into the night, while fans and pundits began to consider whether his goals would be a false dawn or a springboard into the first team.
In June, 19-year-old forward Chris Willock left Arsenal for Benfica, signing a five-year deal with the Portuguese champions. Others, such as Reece Oxford, Ryan Kent and Jadon Sancho, left for the Bundesliga on loan or permanent deals. The moves were seen as an ominous sign of the direction England’s youngsters were taking. Understanding that Premier League football was going to be hard to come by, they were opting to go abroad.
Wenger has a reputation for developing young talent, though in recent years this has not appeared a priority for the French boss. Indeed, of his best and most frequently used starting XI this season, only one individual – Hector Bellerín came from the academy. Fortunately for the club’s long-term future, this could soon change.
Alex Iwobi has already made inroads and, with the possibility that Alexis Sánchez and Mesut Özil will depart within the next year, he could soon be a regular starter. Meanwhile, Ainsley Maitland-Niles has gotten more involvement at senior level over the last two seasons. In pre-season, Reiss Nelson and Marcus McGuane both caught the eye, while Nketiah also played a part.
Therefore, while the movement of youngsters to clubs in Germany and Portugal may have suggested that Arsenal, among other Premier League sides, had all but officially given up prioritising their own academy graduates, there remained room for optimism.
And, following Nketiah’s brace against Norwich, Wenger was quick to reaffirm his faith in youth, saying:
“It’s good because life gives chances to young people. Hopefully [Nketiah will] have a long career at Arsenal. We’re proud to give chances to young players, it’s part of our DNA, and we want to continue to do that.
“I don’t know why exactly Chelsea let him go or if he decided to leave, but young players more and more nowadays travel from one club to another. We’re happy to have him. I can’t remember a young player having such an impact in a game like that. Until he came on we lacked ideas and creativity.”
NKETIAH’S NEXT STEP
The natural reaction to a home-grown teenager scoring twice against a lower division opponent in League Cup action would be to overhype and then tear down. So worn is this process, there has even been faux-hype on social media regarding Nketiah’s match-winning display against Norwich.
However, a deeper look into the player’s background provides enough information to be suitably encouraged by his progress. It’s worth noting that Alexandre Lacazette, Arsenal’s big-money summer signing from Lyon and a quality striker in his own right, saw fit to praise his younger team-mate, saying: “I really like Eddie…He's a great striker at the academy. He is very calm in front of goal and has great technique.”
The numbers certainly look good. Last season, Nketiah scored a remarkable 24 goals in 33 appearances at reserve and youth team level. In all competitions, he found the back of the net once every 87.7 minutes on average. This term he has hit three goals in six games outside of first-team action. In four outings for England’s under-19 and under-18 teams, he has scored seven times.
Those figures accurately portray the 18-year-old as a sharp-shooter. He’s primarily a striker who wants to get into the opposition’s penalty area and, evidently, knows how to finish a chance. But he’s also more than that.
In 2016/17, Nketiah set up five goals; in 2017/18 so far, he has set up two. He has also morphed from an out-and-out No.9 into someone capable of operating behind the main striker or on the wing. In those roles, pace and finishing aren’t necessarily enough; control, awareness, link play and movement are also crucial traits. The Arsenal prospect appears proficient in all of these areas.
Perhaps his game is the result of a desire to channel the heroes he used to worship as a kid. In an interview with the club’s official website, he said that he grew up watching Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Ian Wright, with a focus on the former that is entirely understandable given he was only born in 1999. This can’t have hurt his development into a fine young all-rounder.
Nketiah is far from the finished article, but as Arsenal prepare to move into a new era post-Sánchez, Özil and, down the line, Wenger, his emergence into the first team is to be celebrated. One day, he may well follow in the footsteps of his idols and lead the line.