Why Arsenal's Eddie Nketiah has failed to make inroads at Leeds United under Marcelo Bielsa and what Whites need now
It is Marcelo Bielsa’s fault that it has not worked out for Eddie Nketiah at Leeds United.
It is also Bielsa’s fault that the Whites go into 2020 top of the Championship with a nine-point cushion between them and third place.
You can also lay the blame for Leeds’ relentless chance-creation, dominance in games and the fitness that helps them to score late winners, like at Birmingham on Sunday, firmly at the feet of the Argentine.
Maybe it was never going to work out for Nketiah at Elland Road, because as Bielsa has told us all along, he’s an out-and-out striker, a goal-scorer.
He is a lightning quick poacher extraordinaire with a decent leap, good movement and razor sharp instincts.
What he is not is a Patrick Bamford. Like it or not, Bamford – for all his profligacy at times – ticks more of the boxes on Bielsa’s list.
Bielsa said as much in October when he revealed that while Nketiah ran more than Bamford, his running was focused on trying to score goals, Bamford’s running was done within the team structure, a structure that promotes defending and attacking as one unit.
“Nketiah has all the resources, skills, to resolve the needs of scoring one goal,” said the head coach.
“But we need to build the chance at goal – and we cannot build the chances if we don’t have a structure within all the players to create the chances.
“Before you score a goal, you build the situation that allows the chance to score.
“The metres that Bamford ran is true to the team – and Nketiah puts these metres in to finish the action.”
To Nketiah’s credit, it appears he made significant strides towards assimilating, because when Leeds went seven games without ever scoring more than once per outing, Bielsa turned to the Arsenal man.
On Friday, November 1, Nketiah trained with the first team in the knowledge that he was just 24 hours away from the first Championship start Leeds United fans had been crying out for, in place of a struggling-for-goals Bamford.
Yet by the end of that training session, Nketiah was being sick in a bush before a trip to the hospital revealed an abdominal injury.
Bamford started the next day against Queens Park Rangers and played well.
With Nketiah ruled out for around a month, Bamford turned the screw by ending his goal drought against Blackburn and nailed down his starting spot by scoring six times in eight games.
It was not just goals that made Bamford an undroppable fixture in Bielsa’s side, but his all-round play.
About that there can be little argument from Nketiah, Arsenal or anyone else for that matter. Simply put, Bamford is a Bielsa player and he was key to a seven-game winning streak.
Maybe the biggest compliment to Bamford was that he almost managed to silence the noise surrounding his understudy during that period.
Nketiah did get minutes, recently, but did not do enough with them.
Some of that was not his fault, Leeds have not enjoyed the same control in the last couple of matches and were not at their creative best against Fulham or Preston.
Against Birmingham on Sunday, Bamford was finally unseated, by a dead leg, and Nketiah got his first start.
One or two nice moments aside, including good hold-up play in the lead up to Leeds’ second goal, he was unable to impose the same presence that Bamford guarantees Bielsa.
The wave that Nketiah gave to the away end as he went off on 81 minutes, before all hell broke loose in the game, took on extra meaning when reports began to emerge yesterday of an impending recall by Arsenal.
Leeds have made it clear that nothing has been confirmed and Nketiah may well be involved against West Brom, but no-one will be surprised if he is already back at the Emirates before Leeds travel there next Monday in the FA Cup.
It just has not worked out.
Having a different kind of striker is perfectly acceptable when you have a head coach who changes tack, but Bielsa has one way.
As he might put it, Leeds have a ‘clear way of playing’ that just does not seem to suit Nketiah.
As Bielsa said on Sunday, if Nketiah departs, a replacement will be required in the January transfer window. It's a task of huge importance given the potential unthinkable ramifications should Bamford go down with an injury a little more serious than a dead leg.
Finding another Bamford in the January loan market would be asking miracles of Victor Orta, Leeds’ director of football.
But whoever the Whites bring in to provide competition for their top goal-scorer, he has to be able to do what Bamford does.
A great first touch, the physical strength to hold off the attentions of central defenders, aerial ability, a goal-scoring knack and the willingness to run and run for the team, not just for goals.
Orta needs to find a player who will put side before self. He needs to find a Bielsa player.
None of this is any slight on Nketiah, who will undoubtedly go on to score many, many goals in what should be a glittering career. His natural instinct and the ability he has to make it happen will see him right.
“If Nketiah doesn’t do well here in Leeds, the responsibility is going to be mine,” said Bielsa 10 weeks ago.
But Bamford and Leeds are doing very, very well. Bielsa is responsible for that, too.