The 49 Steps
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The 49 Steps

Wenger’s Misfit Toys Have Saved Arteta

Arsene Wenger’s island of misfit toys wasn’t so bad after all. The common perception when Wenger left/was forced out in 2018 was that Le Prof’ left behind a train-wreck squad.

There was just one tiny problem with that view: It was bollocks.

The only proof you need Wenger left enough talent behind for his successors to work with are the performances of the forgotten souls who have saved Mikel Arteta this season. Three of Wenger’s former chargers are leading Arsenal’s potential return to the UEFA Champions League.

They are Eddie Nketiah, Rob Holding and Mohamed Elneny. All three have made contributions to salvage a season that appeared off the rails when Arteta’s team lost three in a row to begin April.

Wenger gave Fast Eddie his start in the first team during that final, ill-fated campaign in 2017/18. Nketiah’s goals helped Arsenal reach the Carabao Cup final, the fourth cup final Wenger reached during his final five years in charge and the only one of those he lost.

Washed up? Do me a favour…

Nketiah’s career with Arsenal appeared washed, and it still might be if he doesn’t sign a new contract before the current one officially expires this summer. Nketiah grew impatient waiting for his chance, something he made clear during an appearance on The Beautiful Game Podcast:

Arteta finally relented and turned to Nketiah before the 1–0 defeat at Southampton on April 16, but, the manager’s u-turn only came after it was beyond obvious Alexandre Lacazette’s goal drought couldn’t be ignored any longer.

In other words, Arteta only acted once he got desperate. The way he did when Emile Smith Rowe was finally given his long-overdue chance when The Process King was on the brink before facing Chelsea on Boxing Day 2020.

ESR inspired a 3–1 win over Chelsea to save Arteta’s bacon. Nketiah has had a similar impact, scoring the goals Lacazette couldn’t to get the chase for fourth back on track:

Nketiah’s brace in the pressure-packed 2–1 win over Leeds also gave the 22-year-old a club mark not hit in the Premier League since the glory days of the Wenger era:

Excuse a quick aside, but how good was Nwankwo Kanu? Absolute Magician.

Here’s another nut for your trail mix. If Nketiah doesn’t sign da ting, will Arteta get the same level of criticism Wenger faced for failing to secure Serge Gnabry’s future way back when?

Don’t bank on it. Mikel’s bulletproof.

Nketiah’s impact has been easy to measure in terms of goals. It’s not quite as straightforward to chart the boost Holding has provided to Arteta’s erratic “project.”

‘Course Rob did score the opener in the 2–1 win away to West Ham, another game where Arteta was lucky to be able to rely on Wenger’s leftovers (eewwww...).

More than his goal, Holding has delivered some clutch performances at the business end of the season. That’s been his forte ever since Wenger paid a mere £2 million for a player about to drop into League One with Bolton Wanderers back in 2016.

All Holding has done since is deliver when it matters. Like he did to help beat Chelsea in the 2017 FA Cup final. Like he did to beat the same opposition at the same stage of the same tournament three years later.

Arteta was the beneficiary of the Holding rabbit’s foot in 2020, and he’s benefitting again. This time to the tune of some solid defensive displays in the absence of injured Ben White.

It says everything Arteta paid £50 million for shaky White, but Arsenal are leaning on an unheralded defender Wenger signed for a snip. Over to you, Boss.

Holding was all but an afterthought before White’s injury, but no forgotten figure has had a revival on the scale being enjoyed by Elneny. Arteta looked the way of Elneny when Thomas Partey went down injured again to the shock of NOBODY!

The fact Arteta even remembered Elneny was in the building was a surprise in itself. It appeared as though the midfielder was simply going to run down his contract and leave for pastures new at the end of the season.

Elneny knew he was on his way out. He explained as much in an interview with ex-Spurs lad Mido (yuck):

The crucial quotes here are “Arteta does not have me in his plans. It was over.” Then there’s “remember, Arteta had me outside of his plan.”

So there it is, a direct admission from the player himself that Arteta didn’t want him in the team. Flash forward a couple of months, and Arteta was desperate enough to change his mind. Luckily, there was another one of Wenger’s misfit toys lying around.

Elneny has stepped in alongside Granit Xhaka and been superb. His Steady Eddie style has let Xhaka forage a little further forward, where he’s better suited than trying to screen the defence.

The latter is more Elneny’s forte, and frankly, it’s a little surprising Wenger didn’t play this pair, who also worked alongside one another for Basel, together more often. Especially since Wenger knew all about Elneny’s best qualities:

Elneny is a very strong and active player. He’s a player with a modern style of play, and he always gives his best for his team. Elneny is a very tactically-useful player. He is very active inside the pitch and what strikes me the most is how he protects his team.His input within the team is great, not in terms of goal creation because he’s not the type to have the final touch before the goal. But because of how helpful he is in the build-up. Elneny’s style of play adds protection to the team.

Arteta has finally awoken to the same hidden value in Elneny’s game. Just like in the case of Holding, it says a lot Arsenal are relying so heavily on a player who had been banished to the wilderness:

It also speaks volumes Arteta is trusting Elneny ahead of one of his own signings, Albert Sambi Lokonga. The latter is younger, more highly touted and cost £18 million, but is being kept out of the side by a fringe player Wenger signed over six years ago for a mere £5 million.

There’s still no love for Wenger’s enduring ability to spot talent at a bargain. Not even when Arteta and Edu are now lining up a new contract for Elneny.

What does that say about Lokonga’s standing and development? Nothing good probably.

Make no mistake, the revival of Nketiah, Holding and Elneny is not the latest part of Arteta’s masterplan. Although, you can bet your bollocks to a barn dance that’s how it’ll be framed.

Instead, if Arsenal finish the job and secure a top-four finish, the way Arteta’s team should from this position, it will largely be down to Wenger’s keen eye and the quality he left behind for those that followed.

Just don’t expect to see him praised or thanked for it anywhere other than this modest blog.

Originally published at on May 11, 2022.



Arsenal, NFL History and Film Analysis from James Dudko

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James Dudko

Films, Footie and Gridiron, with the emphasis on Arsenal, NFL history and analysis of cinema from years past.