Arsenal need to figure out what to do with their options behind first-choice striker, Gabriel Jesus.
Are they comfortable with Eddie Nketiah being his back up? Do they stick or twist with Folarin Balogun? Or do they just decide neither are quite suitable and look to dip into the transfer pool?
For all the qualities that Jesus brings – and there are a lot – finishing has never been his strong suit.
Jesus has played in the Premier League for seven seasons now. Over that time, he’s accumulated a total of 83.6 expected goals. But from those chances he’s scored just 69 times. That works out as an underperformance of 14.6 goals. Since his first season at Manchester City in 2016-17, no player has underperformed their expected goals tally by a larger margin.
The work he does off the ball and his ability to elevate the game of his teammates is worth that trade off. Mikel Arteta is well aware of that.
But should Arsenal’s Plan A fail, or if they need to bring a more clinical finisher to make the most of a scrappy half-chance, they need other options.
You get the sense that Arsenal will keep one of Nketiah or Balogun, but not both, particularly as players like Leandro Trossard and Kai Havertz have both operated as false nines in the past.
So, what might they decide to do? Let’s run through the options.
Option 1: Keep Eddie Nketiah
Nketiah only signed a long-term contract last year – worth a reported £100,000 per week – and although he deputised admirably for Jesus at the start of 2022, he struggled for fitness and playing time once the Brazilian returned.
Nkeitah’s underlying numbers have always been strong though. In his 1,070 Premier League minutes last season, he averaged 0.69 non-penalty xG per 90, which was more than any Arsenal player. In fact, only Erling Haaland (0.75) and Callum Wilson (0.72) averaged a higher non-penalty xG value per 90 than Nketiah’s, suggesting the Englishman frequently took up good shooting positions in his limited playing time. Comparing Jesus and Nketiah’s shooting habits from last season shows us that the latter offers slightly more goal threat.
Over the long run, we’ve seen Jesus’ biggest weakness is his ability to finish chances. That’s an affliction that Nketiah doesn’t appear to share. Since 2018-19, his breakout season at Leeds United, he’s scored 16 goals from 20.4 expected goals in top-flight football. While that’s a slight underperformance, he’s only started 30 league games across that spell so the sample size might be working against him.
The question, of course, is what’s the trade-off? The rest of Jesus’ game is superb. If Arsenal gain a better finisher, what do they lose?
While he can’t do the rest as well as Jesus does, Nketiah is not unwilling or unable to do any of the work outside of the penalty area. He may do it with less quality, or less consistency, but he can play Jesus’ role. The young Englishman is a more than capable deputy, in terms of style and in terms of ability.
As a homegrown talent, Nketiah is likely never to be short of suitors should Arsenal want to move him on. Given that, and the fact he’s still just 24, he’s likely to retain value if Arsenal wanted to hold onto him for another season.
Sticking with Nketiah as Jesus’ back up feels like to most likely thing for Arteta to do at this stage of the off-season.
Option 2: Go for Folarin
Folarin Balogun is a much more unknown quantity, but one that has more upside than Nketiah.
The recently declared US international returns to the Emirates after a successful loan spell at Reims in Ligue 1. Balogun scored 21 goals in the top flight last campaign, enough for fourth place in the Ligue 1 rankings behind the more established trio of Kylian Mbappé, Alex Lacazette, and Jonathan David. He almost single-handedly carried Reims’ attack too, scoring 46% of their goals last season.
On last season’s showing, Balogun offers a more immediate goal threat than either Jesus or Nketiah.
Last term he displayed an ability to consistently create good chances for himself. Only Mbappé (0.84) generated more expected goals per 90 than Balogun’s 0.79, and even stripping away penalties from that analysis sees Balogun rank third overall in France.
His shot volume was also mighty impressive. Among Ligue 1 players to play at least 1,000 minutes, only Kylian Mbappé and Lionel Messi took more shots in the league than Balogun’s 3.8 per 90 minutes, and that figure was a lot higher than Jesus and Nketiah could offer.
Aside from that, Balogun created quite a few chances for himself via his ability to run with the ball. The American completed 32 carries that ended in a shot in Ligue 1 last season, the fourth-most of any player in France, and has shown a bigger tendency to run with the ball from deep than any of Arsenal’s other options.
Granted, with Reims playing a far more direct style than Arsenal, he’s probably afforded for space to run into. But his carrying ability, along with being able to generate pure shot volume, indicates that he can create several chances for himself from the final third irrespective of the service he receives. That bodes well for his future in the game, wherever he ends up.
The question of how much we can read into Balogun’s performances, given they’ve come in a weaker league, is a fair one. But Reims finished mid-table last season, meaning that Balogun regularly faced more difficult opposition compared to his team’s own strength.
If there was going to be any concern about translatability, it should probably be about moving between systems. He would be going from a direct, transitional team in Reims, to a controlled, possession-dominant team in Arsenal. Whether his game would work as well in north London is probably the key question that Arteta needs to answer.
Having already been out on loan, Balogun’s made it clear that another loan deal is off the cards. Nor would he be satisfied with playing a bit-part role in Arteta’s squad – he wants, and needs, the play first team football.
The question is then whether Arsenal sell. Balogun would likely command a much higher transfer fee than Nketiah and could be used to offset Arsenal’s heavy spending this summer. The American certainly has the higher upside of the two players, and Arteta and Edu may feel like cashing out while the price is high.
There is a third option. Perhaps Arsenal decide neither are suitable and dip into the transfer market again. If they did that, Arteta would likely be looking for a forward who offers something different than his current options. A strong, hold-up striker who can pin defences back and offers them an aerial threat in and around the box would be an ideal Plan B striker. The problem is then finding a player of a high enough calibre that would be happy not starting the majority of matches. A player like Alvaro Morata – clearly past his prime but still effective on his day – might be a profile that fits the bill. The 30-year-old has attracted interest from a number of clubs in both Italy and Saudi Arabia. Milan have been in pole position to sign him, while Juventus (of course), Al Hilal and Al Ettifaq are also in the race.
Whichever way they decide to go, Arsenal need to make sure they are 100% happy with the reinforcements behind Jesus as they gear up for another title bid.