Eddie Nketiah’s unexpected hero status fuels Arsenal’s belief in the title

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Managers can map the league in detail. They can practice when they can give athletes a break, when training can be sped up or relaxed. They can plot when they can use a three or four from the back. They can draw up eventualities: if he then he’s outside he we can play here or we can switch his over there. And sometimes, even in times of multi-layered teams with two or more players per position, things just happen.

Maybe it’s not fair to Eddie Nketiah. Maybe Mikel Arteta always believed he could replace Gabriel Jesus. It may not be fair to think of him as an unlikely match winner. But Sunday was only his fifth start of the season. And it was the first day of his life that his number of Premier League starts for Arsenal (24) surpassed his age (23).

Related: Arsenal walks alongside Manchester United with a unique aura of champions | Jonathan Liw

It may be that Nketiah will score barrel goals and win another half-dozen titles that in a decade it seems strange that he was ever doubted but there was no sense of the inevitability of his emergence. For now, the temptation is more to add him to the list of unlikely scorers who added momentum in a crucial phase of a winning season: Federico Macheda or David Needham; or, from Arsenal’s point of view, Christopher Wreh or Martin Hayes.

Perhaps this is unfair, but there are two possible alternative scenarios that show how uncertain success can be. Imagine if Nketiah didn’t lead home that 90th-minute shot from Martin Ƙdegaard. Then the unique memory of him from the game would not be his close-range header that equalized after 24 minutes, but the chance that came to him with six minutes left. In the crowded penalty area, the space suddenly opened up, the corner fell gently and… David de Gea made a very good save.

Suddenly, that snapshot would be next to Nick Pope’s excellent save by Nketiah late in the game against Newcastle. Could he have done better? Would a more clinical finisher direct his shot a bit closer to the corner, giving the keeper no chance? Two missed chances, four points on the table, and you might ask, can you really afford to spend so much with Manchester City on your tail?

Manchester United's David de Gea saved Eddie Nketiah's shot.

Manchester United’s David de Gea saved Eddie Nketiah’s shot. What if it was the Arsenal striker’s special match memory? Photo: David Klein/Reuters

And what if Arsenal completed the transfer of Mikhailo Mudryk? Like Chelsea, they probably wouldn’t start it at the weekend, but with Arsenal chasing the winner, it’s likely that no matter how well Arsenal played in the last 20 minutes, Mikel Arteta would have introduced him. Nketiah could have done it easily, perhaps with Gabriel Martinelli moved to the middle to accommodate the Ukrainian.

Without their winner, Arsenal might not have this sense of a series of narratives leading them to glory. And that’s important. Destiny doesn’t exist until enough people believe in it, and then it can have a tremendous effect on confidence. And in the last few weeks, after victories over Tottenham and Manchester United, it started to feel like a successful title fight. And perhaps therein lies the crucial point: this is not a clash yet, not yet. Arsenal still have half the season to play. There’s still a lot that can go wrong, and 19 consecutive matches is a very long time to live with a nervous angst that leads players – and fans – straight home, even those who have come to believe it’s meant to be.

Nketiah’s goalscoring ability has never been in doubt – what saves him from the Pope and De Gea, and what the reaction might have been if Arsenal didn’t win, perhaps hints at how unfair or misleading our judgments can be when isolated incidents come up to the forefront of our minds. He is the all-time top scorer for England under-21s with 16 goals in 17 games. In his first season at Arsenal after being released by Chelsea, he scored 15 of 16 goals for the U18s and 12 of 26 for the U23s. He has scored seven goals in his last seven games and is Arsenal’s top scorer in all competitions this season.

The question wasn’t really about his finishing – although there will always be doubts about whether a player can climb to the top level, find the same kind of space against the best defenders, send the ball just beyond the back line. best goalkeepers than his versatile game. Would he be able to replicate the ability to get balls, press, Jesus? And the answer is: not really. He makes 24% fewer tackles per game than Jesus and only about a quarter of the interceptions. But the flip side of this is that his shooting accuracy is about 20% higher and he has four league goals from 27 shots as opposed to five from 50.

And this compromise can be accommodated; it may even be beneficial. And there are fewer intangible benefits. In the documentary All or Nothing, there is a moment where Nketiah tells Albert Sambi Lokonga, discouraged by his absence from the team, to “stop feeling sorry for yourself and fucking wake up.” He has always believed in himself and now, mainly because no one expected him to be a key figure, he is passing that faith on to Arsenal, a club that is just starting to wake up.

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