When Arsenal agreed the deal to take then 17-year-old Gabriel Martinelli, I was concerned that it would send a negative message it would send to the academy.
The worry was that we had a lot of good young attacking talent in our academy and U23s. From Eddie Nketiah, Tyreece John-Jules, Folarin Balogun to Reiss Nelson and Bukayo Saka on the wings.
At the time I felt that if Martinelli was being signed to go into the academy squad rather than the 1st team squad, it would be a blow for talented teenagers who had been at the club since primary school days.
My opinion was simple. If Martinelli was to join, it would be to be in and around the 1st team. It was only worthwhile signing him if he was already better than every single one of those aforementioned players.
A decision was made in the summer to send Nketiah on loan.
At 20-years-old, he had spent a few years already playing U23 football and it was clearly a level below him. Even at international youth level, he looks too good for his age group.
The problem he faced was that at Arsenal he had Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette ahead of him. Two world class strikers.
Nketiah needed game time and with Arsenal playing 1 up top, that would have been restrictive – even in the League Cup and Europa League where Unai Emery would have gone with whichever one of his two top strikers was playing second fiddle to the other.
So Nketiah was too good for age group football, yet not quite good enough to get regular minutes in Arsenal’s first team. A loan deal made complete sense.
Off to Leeds United Nketiah went where he has been in good form; already scoring 4 goals this season. However he has yet to make a league start for 2nd in the table for Leeds.
The original plan would have been that Nketiah’s loan deal would be his chance to shine.
A good season at Leeds and he would return to the club a man. 21-years-old and ready to push Aubameyang and Lacazzete. Position himself as a genuine option when 30-year-old Aubameyang’s legs go and he leaves for China or America (it will happen within 2 seasons).
But what has happened whilst he Nketiah has been on loan is he has had to watch on as Arsenal’s new young Brazilian has quickly established himself as a fans favourite.
The situation at Arsenal changed quickly.
An injury to Lacazette left Emery with just the one senior striker. This resulted in him having to look at which teenager would lead the line in the Europa League and League Cup.
Aubameyang started the 1st Europa League game against Eintracht Frankfurt, with Martinelli on the bench. But the young Brazilian was given his chance against Nottingham Forest in the League Cup – scoring twice.
That performance was enough to convince Emery that it was not worth risking Aubameyang in Europe. That Martinelli would be his man for mid-week.
Against Standard Liege Martinelli doubled his goal tally for Arsenal to 4 for the season, adding an exquisite assist in the process. He had arrived.
At this point it is important to point out the importance of not over hyping him.
I have seen some already labelling him the next Carlos Tevez. But he is 18-years-old with two good performances against Nottingham Forest and Standard Leige. We should not be putting him in the starting line-up for Premier League teams yet.
With the performances of Martinelli, it is easy to forget that he is only just 18-years-old. It is that which makes him so exciting.
Time is on his side. There is no need to rush he progression. He will still be a teenager in 2021!
What has impressed about Martinelli the most is his all-round game.
His has shown so far that he can score poacher’s goals, headers and wonder strikes. He has a high work rate, putting pressure on defenders, and is capable of getting involved in the build up play. He could become a complete striker.
Meanwhile Nketiah is a little bit more of a simple striker. He is a finisher, like Ian Wright. He will score goals, a lot of goals. But he will not contribute much else to the team. In modern football, can you really afford to have a striker who is only a goal scorer? Not sure.
The problem Nketiah now faces is that Martinelli is likely to get 6-10 starts this season in the Europa League, League Cup and FA Cup.
If Martinelli continues his current level of performance, and Nketiah does not go and bang in 20+ Championship goals, the Englishman will return to North London behind in the pecking order.
That would leave a 21-year-old Nketiah as 4th choice striker at Arsenal – a team that play one up top. And one of the players ahead of him is 2 years younger, the other 2 will be world class performers.
So role forward 12 months, Aubameyang and Lacazette are combining in Arsenal’s 1st XI and Martinelli is on the bench in the Premier League, starting in the lesser competitions. Where does that leave Nketiah?
At 21-years-old he could still play for the U23 team. But following a season on loan to a top Championship side, that will be a step back.
Another loan deal could be an option, but if at 21 he is not yet ready, and with a (then) 19-year-old ahead of him, a loan deal will be very different to this season. It will not be a case of “you are a young player, go out on loan, perform and next season you will be part of 1st team plans” as 2021/22 Martinelli will still be ahead of him. And just 20.
The other problem Nketiah faces is those other players coming up from behind.
Arsenal have a pair of 18-year-old strikers in Tyreece John-Jules and Folarian Balogun who are next on the Hale End production line.
Next summer Edu will have to decide whether it is worthwhile continuing to develop a Nketiah, or start concentrating on those who are younger.
In the same way arsenal’s focus went from Benik Afobe to Chuba Akpom, then from Akpom to eddie Nketiah; next summer might become a time where a decision is made to let Nketiah go and introduce John-Jules and Balogun to 1st team training, pre-season tours and cup appearances.
Arsenal could well decide to cash in on Nketiah,
Liverpool have done well recently moving on the likes of Dominic Solanke, Kevin Stewart, Jerome Sinclair and Jordon Ibe. Those 4 raised nearly £46million after the Champions League winners decided that they did not have the quality for the highest level.
If Arsenal did decide to sell Nketiah, there would be plenty of Premier League interest.
Would it be unrealistic for Arsenal to command a fee northwards of £20million for him? I would imagine if Leeds did get promoted, they would be very interested in making his loan deal permanent.
So bids for £20m+ for Nketiah come in. He is 4th choice striker and we have teenagers chomping at the bit to get ahead of him. The time might be up for the youngster.