How do you replace someone like Gabriel Jesus? Despite the schadenfreude that accompanied the Brazil international’s drought before the World Cup hiatus, surely rival fans understood the Arsenal frontman’s qualities went beyond just goalscoring.
Jesus’ knee injury sustained in Qatar meant Gooners went all Chicken Little when it was revealed the former Manchester City attacker could be out of action until the end of February. Panic immediately spread.
Despite going six Premier League games without scoring before the hiatus, the striker’s intelligent exertion off the ball and smooth combination with teammates in possession had made him one of Mikel Arteta’s important players in what has turned into an unforeseen title challenge.
Only Martin Odegaard (85) has outdone Jesus’ 82 attacking sequence involvements, only the club captain and Bukayo Saka are outdoing the Brazilian for shot-creating actions and only the Englishman (13) and Gabriel Martinelli (nine) have more than the striker’s seven goal-creating actions in 2022-23.
The industry against the ball did not go unnoticed, especially during his barren spell. Jesus’ tenacity off the ball was crucial in preventing teams from effectively playing out from the back several times this season. And it was such a situation that led to the corner which Arsenal scored from in their 1-0 win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
Admittedly, the former Manchester City forward’s profile will be missed. But in Eddie Nketiah, are the Gunners primed to remain atop the Premier League until the 25-year-old’s return?Getty Images.
The 23-year-old may not drop into midfield like Jesus, combine smoothly with teammates like the four-time Premier League winner or press tirelessly as the club’s number nine. But he offers a goalscoring threat and is a more clinical finisher than the Brazilian.
Nketiah’s improvement in the last 12 to 18 months under Arteta has gone under the radar. Previously simply an out-and-out poacher, the young striker has added more elements to his game to warrant a new contract at the backend of last season and claim the iconic number 14 shirt notably worn by Thierry Henry.
In the opening half against West Ham United on Monday, Gooners could be forgiven for longing for Jesus.
On his first league start of the season, Nketiah struggled to connect as effectively with colleagues in the half, with the Gunners struggling to consistently make inroads through the visitors’ low block.Getty Images
That said, he was denied a deft assist following a back heel that found Saka in the box, only for the linesman to rightly flag for offside after the wide attacker netted on his weaker right foot.
The forward’s goal to seal the 3-1 win was typical Nketiah, picking up the right position and spinning Thilo Kehrer with ease before shooting into the bottom left corner.
“It’s the perfect centre-forward’s strike,” former Manchester United forward Dion Dublin said on Match of The Day. “Roll your defender, strike the ball across the goalkeeper as well. That was brilliant for Nketiah.”
For all the clamour for a new signing in the team’s attack, there is an acceptance that an attacker capable of playing across the frontline is preferable to another centre-forward arrival, with Jesus expected to be back in action at the start of March and Nketiah capable of deputising until the Brazilian’s return.
The 23-year-old at times showed improvement in other facets of his game after replacing Alexander Lacazette in the side last season, dropping deep in the victory at West Ham to receive possession with his back to goal and playing a significant part in the pressing scheme in the Gunners’ 3-1 success over Manchester United.Getty
Three of the striker’s four goals after coming into the side in place of the Frenchman came about after he pressed Leeds United’s goalkeeper Illan Meslier, harried Andreas Christensen which forced an under-hit backpass and profited from a mix-up in the Chelsea defence to score a brace in the 4-2 win at Stamford Bridge.
Arsenal’s visit to Brighton & Hove Albion on Saturday tea-time is likely to be Nketiah’s second Premier League start of 2022-23. And that is likely to be accompanied by fan scrutiny of the striker’s capabilities.
Nketiah quietly packs a punch and is going to relish facing yet another challenge head-on.