Eddie Nketiah scored again from the bench for Leeds on Tuesday night, leading to yet more clamours for him to start. Their promotion hopes could rest on Marcelo Bielsa finding a place for him in the team…
The internet is bubbling with rage. OK, too vague: of course the internet is bubbling with rage. Let’s be more specific: a certain corner of the internet is bubbling with rage. Actually a tiny corner of a certain corner of the internet is bubbling with rage. OK, some people on Twitter are bubbling with rage. It’s…a number of Arsenal fans’ accounts.
The source of the ire is Eddie Nketiah. Or, more specifically, Marcelo Bielsa in relation to Eddie Nketiah. On Tuesday night the Arsenal loanee came off the bench in the 77th minute of Leeds United’s game at Preston, and by the 87th minute he had scored a glorious header to earn a 1-1 draw for his adopted side.
The crucial word in that paragraph is ‘bench.’ Nketiah is yet to start a league game for Leeds, coming on as a substitute nine times as Bielsa has preferred the whispy hair and Brideshead Revisited face of Patrick Bamford to start every game thus far. In those 13 starts Bamford has contributed four goals, while in his 220 minutes on the pitch so far Nketiah has three.
If you listen to some of the more ardent voices then it feels like little short of an international incident that Nketiah has been confined to the role of super sub. It’s become a theme for anyone who follows Ian Wright, the high prince of Arsenal Twitter: earlier in the season he went on a sort of pilgrimage to watch him play and on Tuesday he replied to the official Leeds account simply with an amusing Lionel Richie gif, and to the Athletic’s Mr Leeds, Phil Hay, simply saying ‘Start him!’
— Ian Wright (@IanWright0) October 22, 2019
It’s usually wise to listen to Wright, and in this case he’s correct, on the face of things. Nketiah averages a goal every 73 minutes in the league this season, which drops to one every 64 if you throw in his strikes in the Carabao Cup and for England Under-21s. He’s scored his five goals for Leeds from eight efforts on target.
But it’s not even the frequency or number of goals that has stirred the passions. All three in the league have been in the last ten minutes: one was a winner against Brentford, one a deadlock-breaker in a 2-0 win over Barnsley and of course the leveller on Tuesday. These things are always inexact but Nketiah’s goals have basically been worth five points which, in the cramped business end of the Championship, is the difference between the automatic promotion places and nowhere.
Leeds need the goals too, despite their lofty position: they are (at the time of writing) second in the table despite having scored fewer goals than Luton in 17th. They’re creating chances (they’ve taken an average of nearly 18 shots per game this season) but just aren’t putting them away. There seems to be a logical solution to all of this, but Bielsa is not for budging. Not yet, anyway.
“It is natural that people argue about my decision because they don’t have all the reasons I have,” he said after the Preston game. “I want both of them [Bamford and Nketiah] to be a success this year.
“We have 46 matches or 50 matches. We are in the first 25 per cent of the competition. I think that we have time so I can find a way that both of them shine. If this doesn’t happen, it is going to be a mistake of mine.”
Of course, Bielsa should be trusted on things like this. He is, after all, Marcelo Bielsa. He’s earned a little patience, and the man who recently showed up at the club’s centenary celebrations in his tracksuit probably isn’t going to be swayed by outside voices demanding him to do what’s expected of him.
It's natural that people argue about my decision because they don't have all the reasons I have.
Bielsa will argue the current strategy is working: with Bamford starting games and Nketiah coming on to put out the occasional fire, Leeds have won seven times. “Bamford is a player who helps to organise the team,” Bielsa said.
There wouldn’t be quite the clamour for Nketiah to start (from the outside at least) if he wasn’t an Arsenal player. This is a club who have endured a certain amount of drudgery for a decade, who are understandably excited about a young player whose future looks bright. And like injured players whose reputations grow when they are out of the team, the ability of youngsters can be inflated because we’re instinctively optimistic about them, and they haven’t been around for long enough to see all their flaws.
But this is about more than just a couple of impatient fans on the internet. Perhaps more than any other club in the Championship, promotion needs to happen for Leeds this season. If they don’t go up, Bielsa will almost certainly not stay, and their better players will probably depart too. Tomorrow is no use to them, it has to happen today.
Leeds spent a long time in the summer wooing one of the most exciting talents available to Championship clubs, fighting off a host of other suitors to secure Nketiah for the season, but at the moment, they’re barely using him and Hay has reported Arsenal could recall him in January, potentially sending him to a rival more likely to pick him. It’s a bit like getting hold of a beautiful wool overcoat and only wearing it around the house: sure, it’ll keep you warm, but you could be getting much more use out of it.
If Bielsa doesn’t figure out a way to get Nketiah in the team more regularly, whether that’s with or instead of Bamford, they might lose both him and their hopes of promotion.
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