Arsenal: What next for Ethan Nwaneri after he became the youngest ever Premier League player?
One player’s misfortune may prove to be another’s opportunity. Even as the Premier League continues to evolve, the old adage remains true.
Well, to be fair, it was two Arsenal attacking midfielders who were unfortunately injured in Sunday’s 3-0 win at Brentford.
Gunners captain Martin Odegaard suffered a fracture in training and was therefore not at risk, while Emile Smith Rowe continues to experience pain in the groin in connection with 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 stunning goal on his full debut, but that still left room 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 was then brought on in the second minute of stoppage time to become the youngest ever Premier League player.
Cesc Fabregas was no longer Arsenal’s youngest player across all competitions, the Spaniard having made his first-team debut in a League Cup tie 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 tackle once 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 performance, it’s no surprise to learn that he was born barely eight months after the Emirates Stadium officially opened in July 2006.
His brief appearance itself was nothing to write home about, where he made a tackle and had a single touch on the ball. But history was already written.
Even the feat he had achieved did not stop the teenager from displaying his sheepishness in front of a raucous support, seemingly heading straight for the tunnel at full-time. His teammates were having none of it.
Aaron Ramsdale and Gabriel Martinelli both ensured he was drenched in boos from the same fans who just minutes earlier had used him to taunt the Brentford fans by shouting: ‘He’s got school tomorrow!’
Gabriel Martinelli ensured he received cheers from the traveling Gunners support
A public holiday in the UK due to Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral meant it was factually incorrect, but sooner or later Nwaneri – pronounced ‘Yanieri’ – will return to St John’s Prep and Senior School in Enfield as a Year 11 pupil.
But first comes international duty with England U17s, having boarded a plane for a tournament in Poland just hours after making Premier League history.
But just after boarding that plane, he received praise from Arsenal legend Ian Wright, who said: ‘I’m so proud of that for Arsenal.
‘To join the team at that time, some might think it’s a stunt, but those people – Mikel, Per [Mertesacker]Edu – not putting him in there for a joke.
‘They don’t want to bring people in just for the sake of it. They have a lot of faith in him, he played for the U18s when he was 14.
“What I think it does is send a massive message to the other academy players and show them that they all have a chance to play in the first team.”
Aaron Ramsdale led him towards the section of Arsenal fans to attempt that accolade
And if this spotlight wasn’t extreme enough, reports now suggest that Manchester United, Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea are all circling and keen to add him to their set-up.
It’s a fear the Gunners had that has seemingly been realised. An unnamed former Arsenal manager told WAVE recently:’At the moment we have two U16s where if I had to pick a top ten of all the players I have known in the 30 years I have been at Arsenal these two would be in my top ten, they are outstanding.
‘One is a lad called Myles Lewis-Skelly and the other is Ethan Nwaneri and my biggest concern for them is whether we can keep them because I’d say all the biggest clubs in the country will be sniffing around to try to get them.
‘These two lads are absolutely outstanding and I would go so far as to say that if they don’t get a chance in the first team in two or three years, we’re all guessing!’
With all that going on, it’s easy to forget that this left-footed, skilful attacking midfielder who can also play up top is technically still a schoolboy and therefore won’t be handed a scholarship until March 21 next year, the date of his 16th birthday.
Child protection rules mean he was forced to 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 rather quickly, too. As recently as Friday night, he was expected to play Arsenal U21’s game against Wolves.
But a few hours later he was said to have trained with Mikel Arteta’s men before joining them in the team hotel, now no longer in the Under-21 squad.
So what has caught the Spaniard’s eye? Many have been dubbed the so-called ‘next big thing’ out of Hale End and have failed to make the grade, so his reputation in the academy together is unlikely enough, however glowing Mertesacker’s words about him were.
Perhaps, training with the first team, he showed the ‘championship mentality’ that former Gunners Under-18s coach Dan Micciche alluded to when he highlighted the youngster’s disappointment at not scoring against Reading in February, despite lay on two assists.
However, he did manage to find the back of the net on his Under-18 debut against the same opposition last May, and an Under-21 debut also came earlier this month in Premier League 2 against Blackburn.
He registered one of the three assists he has managed this season against them, while the other two came against Fulham U18s and their Spurs counterparts.
Nwaneri produced an impressive performance against Spurs U18s for Jack Wilshere’s side
It was in the north London derby that he chose to deliver a masterful performance, recording a superb assist for Omai Benjamin with the outside of his foot.
It was something Under-18s boss Jack Wilshere would have been proud of, even if he hadn’t netted himself afterwards to score the final goal in the 4-1 win.
The former England U16 international’s only other goal contribution so far this term came in the U17 international with a goal against the Faroe Islands.
But they had all been warned about his magical feet before the season had even begun.
Slough Town boss Neil Baker said in pre-season after a friendly against the Gunners: ‘Their No 10 has got good feet, he’s just a really young man’.
– He is a really big hope for them at Arsenal. He has absolutely incredible abilities.’
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 put in an impressive performance against Blackburn for the Under-21s this month
Or perhaps the Swiss has simply been tasked with showing Nwaneri how to use his talent to make the biggest leap of all, and for someone who has played through the age groups at Arsenal, the most significant to date.
Whatever the reason, it ties in with the following statement that Arteta made after the win in west London.
‘All the decisions we make and that I make are for the club. It’s not for me, it’s not for the player, it’s because we believe he has a talent that will develop incredibly in the next two or three years.
‘We’ll see how we manage, but the boy will dictate it. Usually it’s not us, usually the players tell you and demand of you how far you can go with it.
“It was just a 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 give me really good information, including Edu. I met him, he has trained a few times with us.
Granit Xhaka has taken Nwaneri under his wing to help him fulfill his early potential
‘Yesterday he had to come because we have injuries, especially the injury of Martin, and then I had the feeling from yesterday that if the opportunity could come, then I would do it and I just (did).
‘I told him yesterday that he should be with us and that I want him to experience what it’s like to be in the hotel, prepare for the game to be around the boys and that he should be ready.
‘If you’re going to be on that bench, you have to be ready. The boy just looks into your eyes and he’s ready. [When he was coming on I said] just congratulations and enjoy.’
From the festivities, enjoy what he certainly did. Now, similar performances at the back end of the Europa League group stage could be a possibility if the Gunners have secured progress.
Beyond that, one more season in youth football combined with first-team training could precede a loan move. Regardless of how things go from there, he won’t be easily forgotten.