How hard work behind the scenes helped Arsenal FC hero silence doubters
ddie Nketiah has a habit of proving people wrong – and the South London striker is once again challenging doubters to become the unlikely hero of Arsenal’s title challenge.
Nketiah took his chance after Gabriel Jesus was injured during the World Cup. He was the winner of Sunday’s 3-2 win over Manchester United and scored six goals in as many games.
His brace at the Emirates Stadium took his total for the season to nine and he is now Arsenal’s top goalscorer.
Since the World Cup, Marcus Rashford is the only English player to score more Premier League goals than Nketiah. Keep his form burning and he’ll be lined up for an England call-up in March.
His performances surprised more than one. The general opinion was that the Gunners’ title bid would fail without Jesus on the team. In reality, it has gone from strength to strength and Arsenal are now five points ahead of Manchester City, with one game less.
Arsenal had to adapt their way of playing without Jesus. If there was one bright spot in his three-month injury layoff, it was that it happened two days before the team flew to Dubai for an interim training camp. season in early December.
It meant manager Mikel Arteta had a full ten days to work with Nketiah in the Middle East to ensure he was ready to take the lead against West Ham on Boxing Day.
The tactical change in the team was obvious. Jesus likes to drift to the left and likes to switch positions with Gabriel Martinelli, who enters. The Brazilian also likes to dive deep to link play, giving Granit Xhaka license and space to push forward from midfield.
Nketiah, on the other hand, is much more of a striker in the penalty area. He maintains his position in the center and Martinelli remains on the left. Nketiah connects the game, but he prefers to do it closer to the goal than Jesus.
The end result is Arsenal playing with a number 9 operating higher up the field, and it is no coincidence that both of Nketiah’s goals fell in the penalty area on Sunday.
His brilliant form is the result of years of hard work and he has developed his game both physically and technically.
The physical work was aided by Arsenal strength and conditioning coach Sam Wilson. The two know each other well, as Wilson has previously worked with the club’s youth teams, joining Arsenal around the same time as Nketiah.
For the past two years they have been working on a specific program to make Nketiah bigger and stronger, aware that he needs to build muscle to take the lead in the Premier League.
Wilson is a popular member of Arteta’s coaching staff and has even gone on holiday with players to help them train.
The advantage for Nketiah is his ability to hold the ball better, with the technical side of his game supported by one-on-one sessions with assistant coach Carlos Cuesta.
Cuesta specializes as an individual development coach, often at the end of the day. They’re video-based, so they don’t affect players’ physical workload, but they do force them to sacrifice their time.
Nketiah’s form is remarkable considering he could have left Arsenal on a free transfer this summer when his contract expired. He opted to sign a new five-year contract and asked for the number 14 shirt. A childhood Arsenal fan, Nketiah wanted to wear the same number as his idol, Thierry Henry, and was happy with the added pressure it would bring. The number has additional significance as it was also the age Nketiah joined Arsenal after being released by Chelsea.
Arsenal skyrocketed after scout Ian Gilmour told them to take it, and Nketiah scored for fun at youth level. He is England’s under-21 top scorer, with 16 goals in 17 games, but there were doubts about his ability to do so at senior level. Ghana, the country of his parents, thinks they can and want Nketiah to represent them.
After starting his career with a rejection, Nketiah may suddenly be faced with a big choice.
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