If Arsenal fans were wondering who may fill the goalscoring void that former captain Pierre Emerick-Aubamayang has left during his absence from the first team - then they got their answer tonight. 22-year-old Eddie Nketiah has been on the fringes of the first team, but with Aubameyang potentially on his way out, it is surely time for the England U21 international to step up.
His hat-trick in the 5-1 win over Sunderland in the League Cup quarter-final was simply sensational, with every finish a slideshow of his quality in front of goal. The League One side were worthy opponents and had the home team troubled for a period, but ultimately Nketiah’s quality was the difference as Arsenal made the last four.
His first goal was a wonderful example of his awareness. Nuno Tavares’ deflected cross cannoned back off the bar as Sunderland weathered the storm in the opening moments but when Rob Holding was left unmarked in the box from a corner, the visitors fell behind. His header was saved by Lee Burge, but Nketiah was on the spot to tap home from close range and give Arsenal the lead.
His positioning from that corner meant he was in the perfect spot to capitalise when the ball fell into the box, and that is the hallmark of a great striker. Within half an hour, the League One side were two down.
Pepe found some space on the right before playing a smart one-two with the overlapping Cedric, and the Ivorian was in the middle to fire the ball home via a deflection. He hasn’t scored in the Premier League yet this season, but that’s his second in this competition.
If Arsenal thought that was the tie over, the Black Cats proved them wrong. A wonderful move tore the home side apart and a through ball from Elliot Embleton allowed Nathan Broadhead to finish in style over Bernd Leno. That sent the packed away end wild and Leno had to get down quickly to deny Carl Winchester soon after.
Straight after the break, the Gunners asserted their control on this game, and Nketiah took centre stage. Fabio Tavares powered his way down the left wing and whipped a ball in for the forward to finish smartly at the near post. The movement was exceptional, as was the finish, even drawing praise from Ian Wright on social media.
Embleton hit a stunning effort that just curled past the post as an injury-hit Sunderland looked to get back into the game before Nketiah made it four with another brilliant finish. Pepe produced a nut-meg on the wing before cutting the ball back for the forward, who flicked the ball into the net with flair. That was his first career hat-trick and his tenth goal in nine appearances in the competition, which has been such a happy hunting ground for him during his fledgling career. The night got even better for Arsenal as 18-year-old debutant Charlie Patino scored late on to cap off a great night for him personally, and the entire team.
But this was a hat-trick of exceptional quality, and proof that Nketiah is a natural finisher. When the opportunities came his way he took them emphatically and Arsenal fans will be desperate to see him given more opportunities in the Premier League. Aubameyang still has 18 months remaining on his contract, but with his recent disciplinary issues, Mikel Arteta is safe in the knowledge that he already has a ready-made replacement waiting in the wings.
The only issue is, Nketiah’s contract expires at the end of the season. Having turned down the club’s latest contract offer this month, his demands may have just gone up a notch with this performance. Arsenal can’t afford to lose him, but the top clubs around Europe will be sniffing around if he becomes available this summer.