It’s been a few days since 15-year-old Ethan Nwaneri. But the record-breaking Arsenal player is used to it.
Back in February 2020, the teenager plays in attack for Arsenal’s Under-14 team away to West Ham. Storm Ciara has hit the UK all week and youth team players have been put on the field in uncharted territory – but 12-year-old Nwaneri will not be thrown.
“He was under 13, playing in the above age group – even at that time he was one of the best players in that group,” said one of the Premier League scouts watching that match. Sky Sports.
“The conditions were awful – it was really windy and rainy and it’s usually hard to rate these guys in that environment. But I chose parts like his body language, his personality and the way he reacts to the conditions.
“He scored in that game and he has an eye on the goal, but he really wanted to be involved in team play and have good control of the ball.”
Now Nwaneri is the most talked about player in English football – after making his brief appearance for Arsenal in their 3-0 win over Brentford on the day Super Sunday It made him the youngest player ever in the Premier League at 15 years and 181 days old.
The midfielder spent three minutes on the West London Stadium, not touching the ball, but the big football experience was there for a player born after the construction of the Emirates Stadium – and he was 12 years old in the UK. It entered its first coronavirus lockdown.
Playing at an older age group has been the way the attacking midfielder has been so far. Those familiar with his rise in youth football have seen him play above his age group since the under-13 level.
“When I saw it it was a different broth,” adds the same scout. “I first spotted him when I was working for other clubs in the Premier League when he was playing for Arsenal U-13 when he was 11.
“But after a few years – when I was watching him as a scout for Manchester United – he developed into what we call a top-class academy player.
“I would refer to him as a United deal if it were up to me but trying to transfer a player from one category one academy team to another one is difficult.
“Even when he was 12 or 13 you could see that he was the group choice, the best player on the pitch – even for the group of the year above. Every time he played ball, he was looking to make things happen. He was He’s a constant threat, he takes set pieces and makes good charges with them.”
Arsenal coaches have continued to play with him above his age group, but his rise over the past twelve months has been nothing short of dramatic. Last season, he was a regular starter for Arsenal’s Under-16 team at the age of 14, but only made his debut for the Under-18 side in February of this year.
The teenager had an immediate impact, scoring twice in the 4-2 win over Reading Under-18s as his Arsenal stock grew even more.
“He’s a guy who gets a lot of interest here as there are other guys at Hill End as well,” Under-18s coach Dan Michichi said after that game.
“I trusted him in his presentation today and he got two passes. Knowing him, he would leave here disappointed because he didn’t score or miss some passes because he has the mentality of a champion.”
The phrase ‘champion mentality’ often appears when an Arsenal youth producer comes from among the ranks to the first team. The same term was given to Bukayo Saka by an Arsenal scout when the winger was at Arsenal’s Under-9 side.
One wonders if it was that mentality that influenced Mikel Arteta’s “gut feeling”, before the Arsenal first-team coach became involved with Nawaneri against Brentford, a few weeks after the player played under-21 football for the first time.
“The first time I met him, I looked him in the eye and I had that feeling. I really liked what I saw,” Arteta said after Nwaneri made his debut.
“[Academy manager] Per Mertesacker and the Academy staff gave me really good information, [sporting director] Edo as well.”
Arsenal’s senior squad note something special, too – no more than midfielder Granit Xhaka, who coached the Nwaneeri U-16 team recently as Arsenal’s deputy captain works to earn his coaching badges.
“He looks old when I see him but the club can be proud of a player like him,” Xhaka said after Arsenal’s victory over Brentford.
“You can see a huge difference with him and with the other players. He is very, very special.
“Of course you have to protect him because he is so young, but if he continues like this with his hard work, he will have a big and big future.”
So, what now for our wananiri? The history books show that the path forward for the Premier League’s youngest ever players is unclear.
The Arsenal youngster grabbed the record from Harvey Elliott, who now plays regularly for Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. Aaron Lennon is now the fourth youngest player in Premier League history and has spent nearly two decades as a Premier League player.
But then there are the single-hit wonders Matthew Briggs, Jose Baxter and Izzy Brown – who either retired from the game early or are stuck in the league without making an impact in the Premier League. The category in which Nwaneri falls will be determined in the next few years.
There is international recognition to grab it, too. “It’s definitely on our radar,” England Under-21 coach Lee Carsley told me. Sky Sports. “He is a real talent and this is a great achievement.
“When they get a chance in the first team, it’s different. It’s not a case of drowning or swimming, but we’ve seen players struggling to make the transition from the football academy to the big boys. They all need time and this experience is great that Mikel did.”
Meanwhile, Arteta adds: “It’s just one step and all the steps of your career are not forward and you have to know that. You can go forward and then back and then forward. This is, unfortunately, this industry and the football path of any player.”
“All the decisions we make, that I make, belong to the club. It’s not mine, it’s not the player. Because we think he has a talent that should be incredibly developed in the next few years and we’ll see how we manage that.”
“I’m sure they have a plan for him,” Arsenal academy producer Volaren Balogun, currently on loan at Ligue 1 Stade de Reims, told Sky Sports. “There were a lot of players in the past who started playing early, [such as] Reiss Nelson and Bukayo, who debuted when he was 17 years old. I’m sure if he kept his head down, he’d see through that plan.”
Given the recent success of Saka and Emile Smith Rowe making their way into the Arsenal ranks, it seems Nwaneri is in the right place at the right time.