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Eddie Nketiah knows the meaning of the No 14 shirt at Arsenal. He knows how the fans see it, because he has grown up as one of them, and he knows the names of the players who have worn it before him. “It’s an important number,” says the Arsenal striker, smiling at the thought of wearing it next season. “It means a lot to me.”
The number is significant not just because it was carried with such distinction by Thierry Henry, Nketiah’s childhood hero and former academy coach. The meaning runs deeper than that, for club and player, and the fact that Nketiah has been given it, along with a new five-year contract, should be regarded as proof of Arsenal’s faith in their young forward.
“I joined the club at the age of 14,” says Nketiah. “I wore 14 on loan at Leeds, and I even lived at No 14 at one point. When the opportunity came up to take it, it was hard to say no. I know what it means to the club and the fans. It’s a nice feeling, an iconic number.”
This is not to say that Nketiah is the new Henry. Nor is he the new Theo Walcott or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who have also worn the 14 shirt in recent years. These comparisons do not help anyone and for now Nketiah is wise enough to focus on being himself, despite all of the noise around him.
He is not another Thierry, because no one is. Instead he is Eddie, the Arsenal fan who became an Arsenal player, the academy graduate who remains fixated on leading the line for his club.
“We know it is a special shirt and Thierry has made it cool to wear this shirt, just like he did with long socks and gloves,” Nketiah tells Telegraph Sport at Arsenal’s training ground. “It is what we have grown up with. But I am just trying to be the best version of myself. I’m focused on creating my own memories in that shirt, leaving my own stamp on it.
“You still have to deliver. There is always going to be pressure, whether you are wearing number 30, or 14, or whatever, because that is what comes with playing for Arsenal.”
To be clear, playing for Arsenal is all that Nketiah has ever wanted. For much of last season, it seemed certain that he would be leaving the club as a free agent, due to his lack of action. But life moves quickly in this sport and Nketiah seized his opportunity when it came, starting the last eight matches of the season and scoring five goals.
‘Everyone knows how much I love Arsenal’
Mikel Arteta, the Arsenal manager, had been trying for months to convince Nketiah to sign a new deal. The late-season run of games, and the 23-year-old’s excellent performances in those matches, proved crucial.
“Everyone knows how much I love Arsenal,” Nketiah says. “I have come through the academy, I have the attachment with the club. The manager was very supportive and pushed a lot for me to stay. Once I had those kinds of assurances, and no doubts that I will get opportunities to play next season, it was almost impossible for me to leave.
“That run [of matches] really helped me. It gave me the feeling I always wanted, that I have craved. That feeling of playing well, doing well, scoring. It helped me with my decision and made it a lot clearer. Experiencing that with my family, we knew this is the place to be. There is nothing quite like doing well for the club you support and love.”
Nketiah’s goalscoring instincts have never been in doubt. He is the record scorer for England’s Under-21 side, and last season only two Premier League players (Liverpool’s Takumi Minamino and Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez) scored at a faster rate in all competitions.
Such is his knack for finding space in the penalty box, Nketiah has sometimes been accused of being too much of a poacher instead of a complete centre-forward. He is aware of what the critics say, and it is safe to say he answered them in the final few games of the season, when he showed a physical power and technical skill that his detractors were not expecting.
“I have put in a lot of work on my strength and power,” he says. “The stronger I have got, it has allowed me to showcase the skills I have always had. It allows you to compete, to do the things you know you can do. Some people come into the first-team and physically they are fine straight away. But for other people it’s different.”
Nketiah is a thoughtful player, extremely popular with staff behind the scenes at Arsenal, and to hear him speak about his development is to understand the importance of rhythm for strikers. It is hard to build momentum when you are only playing for a few minutes at a time, off the bench, and Nketiah needed a sequence of matches to truly demonstrate his all-round ability.
“When you get a run of eight games in the first team, you get that database and platform to show everything you can do,” he says. “I have worked a lot with the manager on playing with my back to goal, on the spaces to drop into and link play. Of course it has been developed. But at the same time you don’t get here by just standing in the penalty box and scoring a goal.
“People are always going to say things, but I know what I can do. The people that have played with me, played against me, the coaches that have worked with me, I know how they feel about me.”
A new season will almost certainly bring new competition for Nketiah, with Arsenal keen to sign another striker. “Every team needs a squad to compete,” he says. “The club is always looking for ways to strengthen. They have extended my deal and they have done so for a reason. Whoever comes in, you relish the challenge. You make them feel welcome, and then you fight and compete.”
Also on the horizon for Nketiah is a decision over his international future. He is eligible to play for Ghana, and they have made it clear they would like him to represent them. “There have been discussions,” he says. “But nothing has been decided.”
Whatever happens, in club football or on the international stage, there is no doubt that Nketiah will continue to work, in the way he always has. His game is defined by his hunger – both for goals and in his running off the ball – and that will not change now.
“That is just my mentality, my personality,” he says. “I know I am not the finished article, and I don’t need to be the finished article right now. I have time to improve and to make mistakes. But I do have belief in myself that if I am given a run, and I play the games, I can deliver. I know I still have so much more to give and so much more to do.”