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Eddie Nketiah is doing his job, and well
He's not Gabriel Jesus, but Eddie Nketiah's become a consistent performer for Arsenal
Around the time Eddie Nketiah sprinted in front of Joachim Andersen to win a ball in the defensive third, taking a kick to the ribs in Arsenal’s 1-0 win at Crystal Palace and drawing a foul that released pressure on the 10-men Gunners, a thought occurred to me:
“Eddie might actually be the player of this match.”
What Eddie did Monday night was the definition of yeoman’s work. After all, he didn’t score or assist, and in fact missed both of his chances on the night, the more notable being his ill-advised chip attempt in the first half. But Eddie’s other miss was a near-world-class goal that he created himself with an excellent turn.
Eddie kept it up in the second half, earning Arsenal’s penalty with an intelligent and unexpected play off a set-piece. After Arsenal were down to 10 men, it was Nketiah who acted as an expert outlet, releasing pressure on the defense time and time again, at least twice (top of my head) drawing key fouls to reset the play.
Nketiah finished the game with 0.8 non-penalty xG, suggesting that he should’ve scored. That’s something I think just about anyone who watched the game would’ve said. But he also finished with 6 shot-creating actions, second to only Bukayo Saka in the game. He led Arsenal’s attack with two successful dribbles (two attempts) and two carries into the penalty area. That number was matched by only Bukayo Saka, who took 70 touches to Nketiah’s 17. And of course, the penalty won.
To date, no one in Arsenal’s squad has created more total expected goals than Eddie (1.1 npxG+npxA), or p90 expected goals (0.65 npxG+npxA, nearly double the next player). Naturally, this is a small sample size, but it’s representative of two good performances as far as I’m concerned.
This all comes amid common fan opinion that Eddie Nketiah shouldn’t even be getting these minutes. Many fans, or at least those I’ve encountered, would say that Leandro Trossard or Kai Havertz should be Arsenal’s starting 9 in the absence of Gabriel Jesus. It was a fairly common opinion that Nketiah should be sold this summer, with an underlying “he’s not even the real backup 9” pretty common to that viewpoint.
But Arteta continues to select Nketiah, and so far this season he’s done well. I was impressed by his performance against Crystal Palace and said as much online after the game, and it definitely brought up some opinions of his work last season. I dug into this back in February and came away with an opinion that a devilish finishing slump was strongly skewing opinion against Eddie. You can read that below.
Of course, the guy is a striker, he should finish better than he did, no way around that. But his career finishing numbers are much better than last season’s, during which he was actually four times worse as a finisher than ever before (and this is without noting that massive downward pull from that sample on his career xG:G number). I’d bet the over on his number from last season, something I also said about Lacazette in the 2021-2022 season. His finishing bounced back in a big way last season in France.
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Although he missed a big chance Monday, Eddie’s got a goal on 1.0 xG so far this season, dead in line with expectations. If he can do that this season, and it’s not crazy to think he could, that could change a lot of the perception surrounding him. It would’ve meant 8 goals in about 12 90s last season, for instance, instead of 4.
That finishing swoon is ultimately what led to Eddie being dropped for Trossard, and a week later he messed up his ankle and ended up missing about six weeks. The narrative became he "lost the job” to Trossard, with many pointing to Arsenal’s turn from frustrating draws and losses to wins as a direct result of Trossard’s involvement.
It’s an interesting narrative, but it’s one I think we need to push back on, or at the very least one we need to properly contextualize.
A common statement is the attack is “better” with Trossard because he does more to enable the players around him (undeniably true), and that he’s a better finisher (which I think is also true). But I’m not sure the real-life evidence shows a significant difference in the team’s performance with Trossard leading the line vs. Eddie Nketiah doing so. Below, you can see the point at which Arsenal made the shift from a slumping Eddie to the newly-signed Trossard. I’ve highlighted in green the clubs that finished the season in the top 10.
The side before the arrow is a lot more difficult, wouldn’t you say? For what it’s worth, you’ve got 1.66 xG per 90 in the Trossard era of this chart, against 1.90 in the Nketiah era.
The concept of the attack “flowing” better gets brought up quite a bit, but I wonder if we aren’t just grading Nketiah on a Gabriel Jesus rubric. If he stood 6’2” would we care that Nketiah doesn’t rack up SCA or xA? That’s not something Vlahovic or Osimhen does, after all.
To add another layer to the equation: Neither of Jesus nor Trossard were directly responsible for more expected chances (npxG+npxA) per 90 than Eddie last season. That’s an illuminating fact, in my opinion. And keep in mind that a hefty chunk of Eddie’s minutes come from the games in the above chart.
Eddie’s not creating chances for others, he’s creating chances for himself. Also known as being a striker. He presses from the front with such effort, and holds the ball up extremely well when required to.
For what it’s worth, Scott also noted the minimal changes in Arsenal’s attacking output in his Nottingham Forest debrief, which you can see below.
So, what’s the takeaway here? I guess I’d just say that different does not inherently mean worse. Numbers do tell a different story than many observers would regarding the club’s performance with Nketiah.
If Eddie can just dial up the finishing a touch, and avoid the swoon he saw in starts seven through nine last season, maybe more Arsenal fans will start to see that as well.