Arsenal may be one striker down, with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang exiled from the first team, but Eddie Nketiah offered a timely reminder of his qualities to Mikel Arteta as he scored a hat trick to fire the Gunners past Sunderland and into the EFL Cup quarterfinals.
This competition has proven to be Nketiah’s hunting ground since his brace bailed Arsene Wenger’s side out against Norwich more than four years ago. He may never have consistently excelled in the Premier League, but ahead of a hectic festive fixture list, the 22-year-old has surely done enough to earn himself serious minutes
He may have departed with the match ball, but Nketiah was hardly the only Arsenal player who will feel their standing was enhanced against a Sunderland side who looked ready for better things than League One. Nicolas Pepe and 18-year-old debutant Charlie Patino also found the net, the latter on his senior debut, while Martin Odegaard continued his rich vein of form in a dominant display for the Gunners, albeit not one without wobbles.
Half an hour into the tie, they seemed to be cruising to the second round. Nketiah had scored in customarily predatorial fashion, finding himself on hand to knee in the rebound after Rob Holding’s powerful header had been saved. Pepe had marked his 100th appearance for the Gunners with a goal, smart interplay with Cedric Soares down the right before his fierce effort deflected high off Callum Doyle and into the net.
It could have been more; between the two goals, Folarin Balogun had twice spurned presentable opportunities in the box. Meanwhile, the pressure of Emile Smith Rowe and Odegaard had Sunderland pinned, at least until Alex Pritchard wriggled free through Arsenal pressure, unleashing a rapid counter that saw Elliot Embleton slipping through the ball at just the right moment for Everton loanee Nathan Broadhead. His finish was composure personified, lifting the ball over Bernd Leno, who had perhaps been a little slow off his line.
It was the first goal scored by a visiting team at the Emirates Stadium since Oct. 22 and Sunderland looked good value to add more before the half was out. Carl Winchester brought a smart save from Leno with a curling left-footed shot from outside the box while Tom Flanagan must have been feeling sheepish over his failure to divert a free kick on target, at least until the offside flag was raised.
The sizeable contingent of travelling Sunderland fans briefly seemed to be turning north London into a mini-Stadium of Light while the visiting midfield had the run of Mohamed Elneny and company. The halftime whistle was a blessed relief to Mikel Arteta.
It was hard to imagine Arsenal might ever have been on the back foot, such was the dominance with which they put Sunderland to the sword. Nuno Tavares careened down the left as he has so often, defenders unable to stop him he drilled the ball to the near post. With a dart across his center back and flick of his right boot Nketiah doubled his tally.
It was a mere amuse-bouche for the hat-trick goal, a goal worthy of bracing the cold of a December London night, though perhaps not the other risks in the capital. Odegaard, relishing the space Sunderland allowed him in the second half, picked out the run of Pepe down the left. The Ivorian offered nothing but disdain for his defender, 18-year-old Callum Doyle. It was time to teach the Manchester City loanee something of the harsh realities of life in at the Premier League as he delivered the first of two nutmegs on him in the space of a few minutes. From there, he rolled the ball to the onrushing Nketiah, who was surely not going to get a shot away with Flanagan right on his back.
With a skip into the air, Nketiah repositioned himself for his right heel to strike through the ball, which fizzed into the bottom of the net. The modern game may have evolved beyond pure poachers at the highest level, but any player who can get to goalscoring positions with the regularity the England Under-21 international does ought never to be short on suitors. In just over six months, he will be out of contract, managers across Europe will see his healthy goal return and his reluctance to sign new terms at Arsenal. He is surely worth taking a flyer on if Arteta cannot convince him his future lies in north London.