Eddie Nketiah silenced his critics by helping Arsenal come from behind to beat West Ham United in their return to Premier League action on Boxing Day.
While the World Cup provided its usual festival of football on the pitch for fans to enjoy, Arsenal fans will have been upset during the tournament as they watched Gabriel Jesus suffer an injury in Brazil’s final group stage game against Cameroon. His first start of the World Cup, Jesus lasted 64 minutes before having to come off with a knee injury that would require surgery, ruling him out for a few months.
What would Arsenal do? They had gone big to sign Jesus in the summer and had him as their main striking option. Things started well for the Brazilian in front of goal as he scored five goals in his first eight Premier League games for Arsenal and provided a further three assists. And though the goals had dried up just before the World Cup, Jesus became an even bigger part of the Arsenal team for his work off the ball and link up with his fellow attackers.
Upon the news of Jesus’ injury, Arsenal were immediately being linked with big name signings in the January transfer window and some of their own fans even called for Cristiano Ronaldo to be a target. They may still look to the transfer window for another replacement when it opens but for now Nketiah is the only option, and fans weren’t too happy with that prospect.
Despite ending last season well, scoring five goals in eight starts including braces against Chelsea and Leeds, Nketiah has struggled to win fans over as a starter and had failed to find the net in the Premier League in 2022/23 – though his 12 appearances pre-World Cup brought just 140 minutes. In the Europa League, Nketiah had been leading the line but after scoring in each of his first two games, drew blanks in the final four matches of the group stage.
Handed the start against West Ham, Nketiah had a quiet first half as Arsenal struggled to take hold of the game, adding to frustration of the fans (mostly on social media). This will have been enhanced by the fact that Arsenal went into the break 1-0 thanks to Said Benrahma’s penalty. But the Gunners turned on the style in the second half.
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Bukayo Saka equalised within 10 minutes of the restart and five minutes later Arsenal were ahead through Gabriel Martinelli. West Ham’s hopes were then dashed with 20 minutes left to play when Nketiah had his moment. The Englishman received a pass from Martin Odegaard on the edge of the West Ham box and turned his marker very easily before finishing into the bottom left corner.
While it may have been his first Premier League goal of the season, Nketiah has now scored 11 in his last 11 starts in all competitions at the Emirates, from just 16 shots on target. Before the run, Nketiah had managed just three goals in his first 10 starts for Arsenal at the Emirates.
Donning the No.14 shirt, Nketiah was hailed for his impact by Arsenal legend Thierry Henry who made that number famous.
“I love this man,” Thierry Henry said of Nketiah.
“I know the journey. It’s not easy, it was never easy for him. But somehow he always delivers when people call upon him.”
“Gabi (Jesus) going to be a big miss, but I’m so happy for Eddie,” Saka said after the game. “We all believed in him, that’s all he needs, just to keep supporting him.
“You can see today he got his goal and that will give him a lot of confidence. We just need to continue to encourage him and of course we’ve got me, Gabi (Martinelli), Martin, even our centre-backs are chipping in on the goals. Everyone’s going to be so important.”
The second-half performance was also another display of Arsenal’s title credentials, proving they are at the top to stay, currently seven points clear of second-placed Newcastle United. Although this was just the second time Arsenal have come from behind to secure points this season, it’s worth remembering that the Gunners have only been behind on three occasions (losing vs Man Utd in the other, having beat Fulham).
Arsenal have also proven themselves to be a second half team, with 22 goals scored in the final 45 minutes in the Premier League this season, only Tottenham (23) have scored more. If games ended at half-time, Arsenal would have 31 points from 15 matches in the Premier League, earning a further nine based on their second-half record.