As Arsenal face off against a depleted Leeds United in the Carabao Cup, one of the Gunners’ fringe players will be reminded of a fork in the road which changed the direction of his career
The last time Arsenal took on Leeds United in a cup competition, there was one sub-plot which featured prominently in the build-up.
The London side won 1-0 in the FA Cup in January 2020, with Reiss Nelson breaking the resistance of the then-Championship opposition, but it was another Hale End graduate whose involvement – or lack thereof – caught the eye.
Eddie Nketiah had spent the first half of the 2019-20 season on loan at Elland Road, making the most of his limited opportunities, but was recalled by Arsenal in one of the first decisive moves of Mikel Arteta’s tenure.
As his current employers face his former team, though, Nketiah hasn’t kicked on in the manner he might have hoped since returning to north London, leaving him as something of a forgotten man.
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After Nketiah scored in his first appearance of the season, helping Arsenal beat AFC Wimbledon in the third round of the Carabao Cup, Arteta hailed the striker as the hardest trainer at the club.
“He puts his head down, he trains harder than everybody else. He supports every teammate no matter the circumstances,” he said.
However, since that game in September, Arteta has yet to name the 22-year-old in a single Premier League squad, let alone a starting line-up.
Nketiah may well earn a recall for another Carabao Cup game, but he may look at his former teammates in white and wonder what might have happened if Leeds’ current predicament happened during his time there.
The main obstacle preventing him enjoying a first-team run at Elland Road was the form and durability of Patrick Bamford.
The striker, now an England international, hit 16 goals in Leeds’ promotion campaign before passing that tally in the top flight.
Bamford will sit out the Arsenal game, though, with an ankle injury keeping him out for more than a month.
After five goals in fewer than 700 Leeds minutes, most of which came from the bench, Nketiah would surely have backed himself to score even more freely with a more consistent run of first-team football.
That opportunity has simply not presented itself to him at Arsenal, though there were moments when he might have felt he was on the cusp of a real breakthrough.
Back in March, Mikel Arteta spoke of how tough it was for him to leave Nketiah out of his squad and said the striker would get his chance.
And yet, as the academy graduate moves closer to the end of his Arsenal contract, he is no closer to the first team despite the manager continuing to compliment his hard work.
When Nketiah was recalled in January 2020, some early goals and the addition of spark made it look as though Arsenal had done the right thing in bringing him home.
However, with the minutes waning and the reasons to stay getting fewer and fewer, one wonders whether an extra few months at Leeds might have been more important to his development than anyone in north London realised at the time.