In the summer of 2019 Arsenal were thinking long and hard about the right steps for Nketiah, who was in danger of atrophying on the fringes of their first team. They conducted as extensive an auditioning process as any club had known for one of their top talents, whittling them down to a top three that included Eintracht Frankfurt, Leeds United and Bristol City.
And then they fumbled the decision. Nketiah went to the best and brightest the Championship had to offer and could not get a start. It took the youngster 143 days to earn a start in Marcelo Bielsa’s league side and just 46 days to figure in Mikel Arteta’s XI.
Arsenal had inserted punitive clauses in their loan agreement with Leeds that would cost the Whites severely if Nketiah did not regularly feature from the outset. It was a price that they were prepared to pay if Bielsa believed that Patrick Bamford was the right man to spearhead a promotion challenge. What price a few hundred thousand extra to the Gunners if you would soon be joining them in the top flight?
It meant that Arsenal were not learning what they needed to discover about Nketiah. They knew from their own experience that he could be a super sub, what they wanted to see was how he fared starting games week in, week out.
Nketiah’s quality was never in question, something he proved on his return to the Arsenal first team, where he scored four goals and began to establish himself as a real rival for Alexandre Lacazette. In the end 2019/20 proved to be a resounding success for the 21-year-old but it could very easily have turned out very differently.
Arsenal would not want to take the same chance again with John-Jules. He may lack the same experience Nketiah had when he went to Leeds but hopes are great for the 19-year-old striker, across the club there is a belief that he can develop into a first team regular if managed correctly.
Mikel Arteta is particularly enamoured with a player who profiles as more of a traditional number nine: tall, strong with his back to goal and capable of spinning in behind and attacking at pace. He has long since outgrown Under-23s football, where for the time being Folarin Balogun will lead the line.
His contract expires next season and Arsenal would want around £8million for him if he cannot be convinced to agree a new contract. So far, despite interest from Germany and English clubs, there has not been an offer that matches their asking price and the Gunners are prepared to be patient.
As for John-Jules, opportunities are what is needed and paramount in Arsenal’s thinking is where he could get them.
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As such despite six Championship clubs expressing an interest, as well as several European options, Arsenal and John-Jules agreed that League One would be a better proving ground for him. If a team in that division commits to playing him then play him they shall, those non-appearance clauses that were a pittance to Leeds are far more onerous for clubs like Doncaster Rovers.
There was even more interest in him in England’s third tier with three-quarters of its clubs expressing interest, including promotion chasing Charlton Athletic.
As has been the case ever since Arsenal’s appointment of Ben Knapper as loan manager the analysis that went into determining John-Jules’ final destination, both from the club and those who work with the player, was extensive. Some of this was as simple as analysing the makeup of their squad and the gap at centre forward that other League One clubs have.
There was more detailed analysis of Doncaster’s style of play and how it matched up with John-Jules’ approach. The young forward likes to come deep and immediately spin in behind; at Lincoln he too often found those runs going to waste as a team-mate tried a shot from range.
Doncaster are among the more progressive teams in a division that seasoned observers expect to be of a high standard this season. Darren Moore is a progressive coach that is popular with his players and has a clear vision for John-Jules that is shared by the player and his parent club.
“He’s a good finisher,” Moore says. “He’s got an eye for goal and he’s wonderful at linking the play.
“He’s someone who can stretch defenders. I think we’ve signed a good young player with potentially a bright future ahead of him.
“It’s credit to the club that he sees this as a place to come to play on the frontline. It’s the right time for him and hopefully he’ll get a consistent level of games where he can show that consistency.”
Equally it helps that Doncaster did a sterling job in developing another Arsenal loanee, Ben Sheaf, in 2019/20.
When Sheaf arrived at the Keepmoat Stadium just over a year ago he seemed to be on a downward spiral having not entirely impressed even with the Arsenal U23s. Questions were still being asked at his parent club about whether he was a midfielder or a defender; they were answered emphatically during an impressive spell in which he missed only two of 32 League One games last season.
Doncaster’s shrewd work with Sheaf has put his career back on an upwards trajectory, he has now gone to Coventry City on loan with an option for the Sky Blues to make it permanent. A player who might have departed on a free when his contract ends could now earn Arsenal a tidy fee.
Of course Sheaf’s career trajectory is likely different to that of John-Jules, whose target will be to use this loan and likely at least one more to propel himself into Arsenal’s reckoning just as the likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette are receding from view. But time is an increasingly precious commodity for John-Jules.
Every footballer has their own travails brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic but its timing was particularly cruel for a teenager who had just begun his path in men’s football. He had netted his first professional goal in game number two of his loan spell but struggled for opportunities as Lincoln began losing games.
A toe injury struck him down in early February and it will have been seven months without football when he makes his first appearance for Doncaster. Through no fault of his own John-Jules has suffered the sort of spell on the sidelines usually reserved for players who suffer major injuries.
The momentum he had built up in the first half of the 2019/20 season – enough that it brought him close to his senior debut – has dissipated. John-Jules has the quality to start it up swiftly indeed and in Doncaster Arsenal believe they have found the right club for him to do so.