Making Sense of the Nketiah-Balogun Situation
By Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)
Last night, Eddie Nketiah reminded fans and prospective buyers of the raw attributes he does possess, that enabled him to break through into the Arsenal senior squad at 18, and enabled him to become the England under-21's all time top goalscorer. Intelligent off-the-ball movement, effective pressing ability, predatory instincts and lightning acceleration. He may be a flawed footballer, but he's very easy to analyse, which makes him a more saleable asset. If you want a homegrown, young, out and out 'poacher' who can press, look no further than Eddie.
However, there is a reason I'm talking about the Lewisham-born striker so cynically, purely as as an asset. Despite possessing these attractive qualities in his game and having a natural knack for finding the back of the net (82nd percentile for non-penalty goals per 90 in Europe's top five leagues), there is a lot Nketiah lacks. His hold-up play and ability to impose himself on more physically dominant centre-halves isn't sufficient for the highest level, while his enthusiasm tends to lead to a lack of technical security and thus poor ball retention. His finishing- when not an instinctive close-range shot- also leaves a lot to be desired.
There's no doubt Nketiah could thrive in certain systems. In teams that dominate territorially and contain several world-class technically excellent and creative players, he could serve as a perfect penalty box striker. In a team that presses highly and excels in the turnovers, he would be a useful option. However, in a team like the current iteration of Arsenal, that requires significantly more from its striker, he isn't what's required for the functionality of the side.
Furthermore, the emergence of another Hale End prospect has essentially decided his imminent future at the club. Folarin Balogun penned a new long-term contract in April of this year after months of speculation that he'd walk away for free. The new deal would appear to have ended Nketiah's natural progression and development into the Arsenal first team, with both occupying the same position and both possessing similar age profiles.
Balogun, unlike Nketiah, is very physically robust for his age. The New-York born forward has the ability to pin a defender, turn and bring others to play. His finishing from slightly further distances from goal is astute, whilst he also appears very capable in the air. Nketiah may have quite a lot more experience in senior football than his counterpart, but Balogun's limited minutes in the men's game thus far show a much more rounded game, closer to the finished article.
And yet, when it comes to the pecking order, the man set to walk away for nothing in the Summer continues to be picked ahead of the man we've committed to in the long-term. On face value, giving minutes to Balogun to develop his game in these lesser competitions would seem the smart thing to do. Nketiah has no apparent future at the club, so prioritising his minutes over the former's seems illogical, especially considering that victory in these games is probably not dependent on the striker selected. The gap in quality and experience between the pair isn't substantial enough to be concerned about picking the less experienced option to lead the line in these games. At a club where developing the long-term project seems to be the priority, it's bizarre that in this individual case it's clearly not.
There may be a few reasons for this curious decision. Most obviously, as aforementioned, Nketiah is an asset. Even if a buyer is not found in January, Arsenal will receive compensation for whoever picks the forward up at the end of the season due to his homegrown status. The higher the level of the club that acquires him, the greater this compensation will be. By completely freezing him out, you're diminishing his potential transfer value in January, and his reputation if he goes for free. Reminding people of his qualities, even if irregularly, may well be financially beneficial to the club in the future. Additionally, if a surprise u-turn is made and he signs a new contract to protect his value, this resale value will be increased further with more minutes and goals to add to his CV.
Another element to this pecking order choice may be related to certain rumours circulating this morning. Several outlets are reporting that Arsenal are indeed trying to convince Eddie to sign a new deal. Attempting to convince a player who has less than 180 minutes of football this season to commit to you is difficult, so giving him more minutes may serve as an incentive. Regardless of the potential intention behind this contract offer- to tie him up so we can sell or to actually use him in the long-term- giving him minutes is only going to help this.
There is perhaps a shock bigger picture to all this. Perhaps, Arsenal's intention all along was to opt for Nketiah over Balogun, to use Balogun's contract to protect his value, whilst trying to incentivise Nketiah to improve his game before trying to tie him down. It seems a bit far-fetched, but who knows?
Disregarding the final reason, I'm convinced Balogun's time will come. We mustn't forget, Nketiah is two years his senior, so he's still relatively early in his development. A loan for him in January is imperative. Nketiah may well be the answer in the very short-term, but his time at Arsenal still feels very inevitably almost up. Balogun is the future.