As was the case in the final game before lockdown last season in March, David Moyes’ gave the Gunners an incredibly tough test at Emirates Stadium, despite Mikel Arteta’s side coming away with all three points. Although players including Dani Ceballos and Bukayo Saka were key to this, the two men the Spaniard had to truly thank were those competing for the starting spot up front.
Since arriving at Arsenal in December, Arteta has had many selection dilemmas to solve. Whether Bernd Leno or Emi Martinez started in goal when they were both at the club, where Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Bukayo Saka are best suited in the side, who partners Granit Xhaka and the one most prevalent of them all, who leads the line?
With both Lacazette and Nketiah on the scoresheet in a game which highlighted their importance to Arsenal more than any, due to the lack of quality across the board when the side moved into the final third, the pair picked up where they left off fighting strong cases for themselves to be the man to be relied upon.
Although the Leno/Martinez dilemma of the summer had potential to be very positive for the Gunners, with a the West Ham game an example of what could happen throughout the season, the Lacazette/Nketiah situation may be just as, if not, more important to driving Arsenal to their objectives come the end of the season.
The immediate impact of the pair approaching their time on the pitch in similar ways is of course, their goals directly leading to another three points when they may not have been fully deserved.
Looking at the bigger picture, however, with both strikers intent of leaving their mark no matter how long they’re on the pitch plays into the overarching goal of returning to the Champions League which will not only benefit Lacazette and Nketiah individually but everybody at the club.
As shown throughout his time in charge, goals aren’t the sole reason a striker will be picked under Arteta, despite their obvious importance. At the start of the Spaniard’s reign, Lacazette was in the midst of a goal drought which went on to span two months. In that time, it was the pressing, hold up and link play with those around him which kept him in the side as Nketiah had to prove he could do the same job while scoring goals too.
With goals flowing and these demands still being followed by both strikers, Arteta now has a dilemma that will prove its worth over the course of the season as he knows both Lacazette and Nketiah have the perpensity to start for him at any given moment.
“I think it’s a natural ability he [Nketiah] has, probably as well with the coaches he had in our academy to find the right positions,” Arteta said after the West Ham win before addressing the role he sees the 21-year-old playing this season.
“He has the intuition and then obviously, he’s able to put the ball in the net with his quality and execution level that he has and he’s aggressive. I’m delighted, we know he’s a threat, someone in the box who is a real danger and we have to use him.
“[He can fit] the starting role as well. He’s shown that since I joined the club. Every time I give him the opportunity he has performed really well.”
Although he is yet to start since the Community Shield win over Liverpool, a game in which his development in necessary but extra curricular demands of a striker were on full display, since returning in January, Nketiah will get chances to lead the line from the off.
With rotation expected in the Carabao Cup on Wednesday [September 23], Leicester City away may be the first example of that. The Europa League group stages starting in a month offer further chances to prove himself which will have an even bigger impact on that overarching goal of securing Champions League qualification this season.
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Considering Arteta has continued to use Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang off the left, having just the two main central options may present injury risks when the fixture list becomes more compact. As things stand, Folarin Balogun, who has been linked with a move away from the club throughout the summer, would look like the most likely backup for the pair.
As things stand, looking to Lacazette and Nketiah to keep pushing themselves and the club forward is a ‘problem’ for Arteta to embrace. In the coming weeks and months, however, finding the balance between their minutes to try to prevent any injuries will be key and considering the way each of them has begun the season, if one is to drop out, the other appears ready to slot in without missing a beat.
There will always be potential threats to the progress of these situations, however, with his two strikers striving to prove themselves whenever they’re on the pitch, Arteta is using the competition for places currently in the squad to his benefit. For both players, the manager and the club, this can only be seen as a positive in what will be another crucial season in north London.