Some players just have ‘it’. Mikel Arteta detected Ethan Nwaneri has something special in their initial interactions.
They left Arsenal’s manager with ‘the gut feeling’ that the schoolboy would be ready to become the Premier League’s youngest player, aged just 15 years and 181 days, against Brentford on Sunday.
Others have seen it as Nwaneri has risen through Arsenal’s ranks. Some have been left so convinced by what they have witnessed that if Nwaneri (pronounced Wan-yeri) doesn’t make it at Arsenal it will leave them scratching their heads and questioning the game.
Ethan Nwaneri became the youngest Premier League player of all time at the weekend
The 15-year-old was subbed on for Bukayo Saka late on in Arsenal’s 3-0 win over Brentford
As much as anyone can say — and while being well aware of the potential pitfalls ahead and development still to come — Nwaneri is considered as close to a sure thing as is possible.
At Arsenal he is widely thought to be ‘the next one’. To some even THE one.
For youngsters coming through at Arsenal’s Hale End academy in recent years Jack Wilshere has been the homegrown benchmark with Cesc Fabregas, signed from Barcelona aged 16, another renowned graduate.
Mikel Arteta’s initial conversations with the teenager are sadi to have given him a gut feeling
Forget how his injury-affected career petered out to a premature retirement, remember early Wilshere and the huge buzz of excitement he created when he arrived on the first-team scene.
So Nwaneri being talked about in similar terms to that heralded pair and, in the opinion of some, having the potential to be one of Arsenal’s best ever academy products, is as clear an indication as any of his ability.
Nwaneri, who has played under Wilshere for the Under 18s this season, came on as an attacking midfielder for his historic runout against Brentford and has featured in a variety of forward positions for Arsenal’s academy sides this season.
The teenager came on as an attacking midfielder for his historic runout against Brentford
But the one consistent and key thing as he has progressed through their youth set-up is getting him on the ball wherever he is deployed. Do so enough and games will be influenced and subsequently won.
‘He’s comfortable wherever you play him,’ one Arsenal source said of Nwaneri, who also has a younger brother Emerson in the Gunners system. Ethan is described as a quick learner, a quality expected to help him make a quick adjustment to first-team football.
‘He would be the best player if you played him as a right back,’ the source added. ‘Within 10 minutes he’d adapt to it and be the best player on the pitch. A complete, total footballer.’
Nwaneri was taken over to acknowledge the away end after the match by his team-mates
He was part of a young bench on the day for the first time, and made his debut late on
Nwaneri has always had a knack for scoring while his technique, intelligence and ability to see and pull off things others cannot have also led to him standing out amongst his peers.
Combine Fabregas and Wilshere’s teenage talent levels with the manners and maturity beyond his years to handle himself impressively in an adult and professional environment and it is not hard to see why Arsenal have such high hopes.
It was endearing to watch Nwaneri’s reaction at full time at Brentford and how he had to be encouraged by team-mates to go over to Arsenal’s fans and receive his ovation following his history-making cameo.
That was in keeping with descriptions of Nwaneri not craving the spotlight. That will shine brighter following his debut but he is said to have the solid support network around him to manage.
His focus is his football and if he is not training at Arsenal he is likely to be working on his craft in an individual session with his father Obi.
And if Arteta was building his ideal player and person for his squad, Nwaneri would likely tick all the right boxes.
While the size of Sunday’s leap was bigger than any other so far, Nwaneri being fast-tracked is nothing new.
He is now part of England’s Under 17s group having played for the Under 16s when he was 14.
After joining Arsenal aged nine having had his pick of clubs, as he does again now, Nwaneri has typically played in a higher age group for the club since before he was a teenager.
Arteta gave some final words of encouragement before introducing Nwaneri to the game
He has only tended to make an appearance at his actual age-level when coming back from injury or if his quality was required to help win a game against one of their rival leading academies.
Granit Xhaka is one of the experienced stars to take Nwaneri under his wing. Xhaka said: ‘I am doing my coaching licence and I have trained the Under 16s. You can see a big difference with him and the other guys. He is very, very special.
‘He looks old when I see him but the club can be proud of a player like him. I spoke with one Brentford guy and told him this guy was 15. He looked at me and said: “F*** me, we are looking old!”.
‘But we are enjoying him, he is enjoying us as he has the quality. You have to protect him as he is very young but if he keeps going like this with his hard work he has a big, big future.’