Mikel Arteta did not quite envisage Eddie Nketiah could perform to the level he has done for Arsenal this season but backed a player with "a real Arsenal heart and spirit".
Nketiah is now Arsenal's leading scorer this season with nine goals in all competitions, having netted twice in Sunday's 3-2 defeat of Manchester United.
He has four in the Premier League despite only starting five matches – averaging a goal every 147 minutes – after beginning the season as back-up to Gabriel Jesus, who was then injured at the World Cup.
Arteta had faith in Nketiah to step up but acknowledged there was little prior evidence of the "incredible" standard to which the striker is now playing.
"What Eddie's doing is incredible," Arteta said. "We cannot say we saw that [coming] – we were hoping that he could do that, because of the way he is, because of his mentality, because of his qualities and how those qualities fit within the team.
"Losing Gabby was a big blow, and it is a big blow today, but Eddie's responding – and the team – in an exceptional way."
Asked just what he had seen in Nketiah, Arteta replied: "The qualities that he has, how much he wants it, how much belief he has in himself to become Arsenal's number nine, his desire, his background.
"We are with him every single day. He's a special kid, so loved by everybody at the football club.
"He's got a real Arsenal heart and spirit within him, and that's special. You cannot put that into numbers, but he is really, really good."
90 - @EddieNketiah9 is the second @Arsenal player to score a 90th minute winner against Manchester United in the Premier League, after Thierry Henry in January 2007. Fourteen. pic.twitter.com/CorwCmg7ed— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) January 22, 2023
Nketiah had six shots against United and it looked as though he might have passed up the opportunity to earn a dramatic victory when he was denied by David de Gea six minutes before his last-gasp winner.
But Arteta explained Nketiah's mindset: "The next time he's going to try again.
"He's going to miss chances, and he's going to miss more chances, for sure, but I guarantee you that the next one he's going to try to do it again. He's not going to hide."
With Nketiah keeping Arsenal on track at the top of the table, they have earned a club-record 50 points in a first half of the season Arteta described as "extraordinary".
But the Arsenal manager is not yet content with their progress, believing they remain some way behind defending champions Manchester City, who are five points off the pace.
"I know my team so well," Arteta said. "I know where we are, I know why we are here, I know where we want to be. We are still far from that.
"And I know the level of the other teams – especially one that has won everything in the last five or six years. We are not there yet."