Arsenal’s 15-year-old debutant Ethan Nwaneri is the schoolboy who’s been tracked by Man United and Liverpool and praised by Gunners legend Ian Wright… so, what’s next for the youngest EVER Premier League player?
- Ethan Nwaneri became the youngest ever Premier League player on Sunday
- England U17 international came on in Arsenal’s 3-0 victory against Brentford
- Man City, United and Chelsea are also said to be interested in signing midfielder
- But the Gunners have a plan to keep him and nurture him under Granit Xhaka
One player’s misfortune can prove to be another’s opportunity. Even as the Premier League continues to evolve, that old adage remains true.
Well, truthfully speaking it was two Arsenal attacking midfielders who were unfortunately injured for Sunday’s 3-0 win at Brentford.
Gunners captain Martin Odegaard suffered a knock in training and was therefore not risked, while Emile Smith Rowe continues to experience pain in his groin related to growth.
Ethan Nwaneri (second from left) became the youngest ever player in Premier League history
The 15-year-old was initially named on the bench for Arsenal at Brentford before coming on
Summer signing Fabio Vieira stepped in and scored a fantastic goal on his full debut but that still left a space on Mikel Arteta’s bench. The Spaniard’s ‘gut feeling’ ended up being a historic choice.
Ethan Nwaneri, aged 15 and 181 days, not only made the bench at the Gtech Community Stadium, but then was brought on to the pitch in the second minute of stoppage time, becoming the youngest Premier League player ever.
Cesc Fabregas was no longer Arsenal’s youngest player across all competitions, with the Spaniard having made his first-team debut in a League Cup match against Rotherham in 2003.
The Premier League era record was previously held by Liverpool midfielder Harvey Elliott, who came on at the age of 16 years and 30 days for Fulham against Wolves three years ago.
Mikel Arteta’s ‘gut feeling’ ended up being a historic choice for the Gunners and the league
His fleeting performance saw him make one tackle and touch the ball once in stoppage time
Arsenal’s No 83 even broke former Sunderland player Derek Foster’s record of 15 years and 184 days outside the Premier League era, which was set in August 1964.
Such is the record-breaking nature of his appearance, it is unsurprising to learn he was born barely eight months after Emirates Stadium officially opened in July 2006.
There was nothing to write home about his brief appearance itself, making one tackle and having one touch of the ball. But history had already been made.
Even the feat he had achieved did not prevent the teenager from showing his sheepishness in front of a raucous away support, seemingly heading straight for the tunnel at full-time. His team-mates were having none of that.
Aaron Ramsdale and Gabriel Martinelli both ensured he soaked in the adulation from the same fans who just a few minutes earlier had used him to taunt the Brentford fans by chanting: ‘He’s got school in the morning!’
Gabriel Martinelli ensured he received the adulation from the travelling Gunners support
A bank holiday in the UK due to Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral meant that was factually incorrect, but sooner or later Nwaneri – pronounced ‘Yanieri’ – will be returning to St John’s Prep and Senior School in Enfield as a Year 11 student.
But first comes international duty with England U17, having boarded a flight for a tournament in Poland just hours after creating Premier League history.
Yet just after he had boarded that plane, he received praise from Arsenal legend Ian Wright, who said: ‘I’m so proud of that for Arsenal.
‘To get in the team at that stage, some people might think it’s a stunt, but those people – Mikel, Per [Mertesacker], Edu – are not putting him in there for a joke.
‘They’re not going to bring people in just for the sake of it. They think very highly of him, he was playing for the U18s when he was 14.
‘What I think this does is sent a massive message to the other academy players and shows them they all have a chance of playing in that first team.’
Aaron Ramsdale walked him towards the section of Arsenal fans to sample the acclaim
And if that spotlight was not extreme enough, reports now suggest Manchester United, Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea are all circling and keen to add him to their setup.
It is a fear the Gunners had which has seemingly been realised. A former, unnamed Arsenal coach told VAVEL recently: ‘At the moment, we’ve got two U16s where if I had to pick out a top ten of all the players I’ve known of in 30 years of being at Arsenal these two would be in my top ten, they’re outstanding.
‘One is a boy called Myles Lewis-Skelly and the other is Ethan Nwaneri, and my biggest worry about them is if we can keep them because I would say all the biggest clubs in the country will be sniffing around trying to get them.
‘These two boys are absolutely outstanding, and I would go as far as to say that if they’re not given a chance in the first team in two or three years then we’re all guessing!’
With all that going on, it is easy to forget that this left-footed, skilful attacking midfielder who can also play up top is still technically a schoolboy and will therefore not be handed a scholarship until March 21 next year, the date of his 16th birthday.
Child protection rules mean he was forced change into Arsenal’s away kit in a separate room from his team-mates, before linking up with them before Arteta delivered his final message in the dressing room.
The midfielder’s next assignment is England U17 duty for a tournament taking place in Poland
And all this had come pretty quickly too. As late as Friday night, he was expecting to play in Arsenal U21’s match against Wolves.
But a few hours later he was told he was training with Mikel Arteta’s men before linking up with them at the team hotel, now no longer in the U21 squad.
So what has caught the Spaniard’s eye? Many have been dubbed the so-called ‘next big thing’ out of Hale End and failed to make the grade, so his reputation in the academy along is unlikely to have been sufficient, regardless of how glowing Mertesacker’s words about him were.
Perhaps when training with the first team, he showed the ‘champion mentality’ former Gunners U18s coach Dan Micciche alluded to when highlighting the youngster’s disappointment at not scoring in a game against Reading in February, despite laying on two assists.
He however did manage to net on his debut for the U18s against the same opposition in May last year, and an U21 debut has also come earlier this month in Premier League 2 against Blackburn.
He registered one of the three assists he has managed this season against them, with the other two coming against Fulham U18s and their Spurs counterparts.
Nwaneri delivered an impressive performance against Spurs U18s for Jack Wilshere’s side
It was in that north London derby where he chose to deliver a masterful display, recording an excellent assist for Omai Benjamin with the outside of his foot.
It was something the U18s boss, Jack Wilshere, would have been proud of even if he had not added netted himself afterwards to score the final goal of the 4-1 victory.
The former England U16 international’s only other goal contribution so far this term came at U17 international level with a goal against Faroe Islands.
But they had all been warned about his magical feet before the season had begun.
Slough Town boss Neil Baker said in pre-season after a friendly against the Gunners: ‘Their No 10 has got great feet, he’s only a real youngster,’.
‘He’s a real high hope for them at Arsenal. He’s got absolutely unbelievable ability.’
It is perhaps that immense ability that experienced Gunners midfielder Granit Xhaka is trying to help nurture by taking him under his wing.
He also delivered an impressive performance against Blackburn for the U21s this month
Or maybe simply the Swiss has been tasked with showing Nwaneri how he can harness his talent to make the greatest leap of all, and for someone who has been playing through the age groups at Arsenal, the most significant yet.
Whichever reason it is, it ties in with the following statement Arteta made after the win in west London.
‘All the decisions that we take and that I take are for the club. It’s not for me, it’s not for the player, it’s because we believe that he has a talent that has to be developed incredibly in the next two or three years.
‘We will see how we manage that but the boy will dictate. Normally it’s not us, normally the players tell you and demand of you how far you can go on that.
‘It was a pure gut feeling,’ he added. ‘When I met him, when I look at him, I had that feeling. I really liked what I saw.
‘Per Mertesacker and the academy staff are giving me really good information, Edu as well. I met him, he’s trained a couple of times with us.
Granit Xhaka has taken Nwaneri under his wing in order to help him fulfil his early potential
‘Yesterday he had to come because we have injuries, especially the injury of Martin, and then I had that feeling from yesterday that if the opportunity could come that I was going to do it and I just (did) it.
‘I told him yesterday that he was going to be with us and that I want him to experience how it is to be in the hotel, to do a preparation of the game to be around the boys and that he had to be ready.
‘If you’re going to be on that bench you have to be ready. The boy just looks in your eyes and he’s ready. [When he was coming on I said] just congratulations and enjoy.’
From the celebrations, enjoy it he certainly did. Now similar appearances at the back end of the Europa League group stage could be a possibility if the Gunners have sealed progression.
Beyond that, a season more in youth football combined with first-team training could precede a loan move away. Whatever way it goes from there, he will not be forgotten easily.
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