Football Features

Arsenal’s post-Wenger pioneer Eddie Nketiah to get one final lesson from Master Bielsa

By Chris Smith

Published: 17:12, 8 August 2019

Eddie Nketiah has sealed a season-long loan move from Arsenal to Leeds United.

After impressing throughout pre-season with the Gunners, scoring against the likes of Bayern Munich and Fiorentina, many thought he would feature in Unai Emery’s plans for the 2019/20 season and, so, this move has come as something of a surprise.

But the Gunners already have a wealth of attacking talent at their disposal in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Alexandre Lacazette and club-record signing Nicolas Pepe, not to mention the likes of Alex Iwobi and Reiss Nelson waiting in the wings.

Nketiah’s talent is there for all to see. The 20-year-old was the first player born after Arsene Wenger’s appointment to score for Arsenal. He is lightning fast, has a real appetite for getting into goalscoring positions and has attacking instincts which belie his years. That said, before he can match the output seen from the likes of Aubameyang, as well as Pepe in Ligue 1 last season, you get the feeling he may just need one more lesson from a real footballing master.

So, who better to take Nketiah under his wing than the one and only Marcelo Bielsa? Pep Guardiola famously labelled the Argentine as the “best coach in the world”, while stories from Mauricio Pochettino illustrate just how fiercely committed he is to squeezing every drop of potential out of young talent.

In fact, it isn’t just Pochettino who Bielsa had a huge hand in forging into a top-class professional footballer. Time and time again, players give glowing references of the “Bielsa effect”, claiming they simply wouldn’t be the player they are today without his often obsessive guidance.

“Bielsa is also offensive but in a different way. Bielsa is maybe the most brilliant mind – the way he sees football, the way he studies the opponent,” Ander Herrera told the Telegraph in 2016. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Barcelona or Getafe. He is the most different, the most original.”

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And Javi Martinez said of Bielsa’s time at Athletic Bilbao: “There are days when he doesn’t leave the training ground until the small hours. It is insane.”

And what about Aymeric Laporte? One of the cornerstones of Guardiola’s all-conquering Manchester City side and quite possibly one of the most complete centre-backs on the planet.

“Without him, I might not be where I am today,” Laporte told the Times. “It was Bielsa who gave me my first steps in the [Spanish] top flight, and so I owe him a lot. I’m very grateful to him and very aware of exactly what he did for me.

“Bielsa’s different in lots of ways, his character, his personality. You only have to talk to him to realise he’s not cut from the usual cloth. But he’s also a really hard worker: he never stops watching matches, he has an extraordinary knowledge of football, he knows everything about the game.”

But how does this translate to turning a would-be Premier League goalscorer into an actual, bonafide goal threat? How can Bielsa help Nketiah translate 46 goals for Arsenal’s youth teams – as well as a further 21 for England’s development sides – into finding the net on the Premier League stage?

Well, while his time at Lille was anything but a success, it’s worth noting that the signing of Pepe for the French side was made under the guidance of Bielsa. 37 goals later, he is now Arsenal’s most expensive recruit having finished second only to Kylian Mbappe in the Ligue 1 scoring charts last season, netting 22 times.

And then there’s Kemar Roofe, Leeds United’s 15-goal top scorer last season, despite missing six games through injury. Before Bielsa arrived, Roofe was a clearly talented goalscorer simply lacking the tactical nouse to help direct his energy. By the end of the 2018/19 season, he was a key component of Bielsa’s ruthless press, attempting the eighth-highest number of tackles per 90 minutes (1.7) of any forward in the Championship last season among players to make 10 or more appearances.

Roofe’s form was so impressive that it sealed him a £6.4m transfer to Vincent Kompany’s Anderlecht, a move which will see him compete in this season’s Europa League. But he didn’t leave without first paying homage to Bielsa’s impact on his career.

“He helped me massively last season,” he told talkSPORT. “Without his style of play and the footballing education he gave to us, I probably wouldn’t be in this position.

“I adapted to his style and I’ve changed a few things in my game that have improved, and these little things have been able to catch the eyes of other people, like Vincent Kompany.

“He likes the way I was playing last season, and he just wants me to continue and improve even more.”

Every apprentice needs to serve time under a master and given his track record for youth development, as well as his painstaking attention to tactical detail and gameplan execution, Master Bielsa might just be the most perfect final footballing lesson Nketiah could ask for. One which could provide Emery with a ready-made Premier League striker this time next year.

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