Nwaneri became the Premier League’s youngest ever player at 15 years and 181 days when he came on for Arsenal against Brentford; the attacking midfielder was playing regular U16 football last season and has now made his senior debut It’s been a whirlwind few days for 15-year-old Ethan Nwaneri.
But Arsenal’s record-breaking debutant is used to that. Rewind to February 2020 and the teenager is playing in attack for Arsenal’s Under-14s away at West Ham. Storm Ciara had hit the UK all week and the youth team players on the pitch were put in unchartered territory – but a 12-year-old Nwaneri would not be thrown about. “He was from the Under 13s, playing in the age group above – even then he was one of the better players in that group,” a Premier League scout who was watching that game tells Sky Sports. “The conditions were terrible – it was really windy and rainy and it’s normally difficult to assess these players in that environment. But I picked out bits like his body language, his character and the way he reacted to the conditions.
“He scored in that game and has an eye for goal, but he really wanted to be involved in the build-up play and had good ball control.” Now Nwaneri is the most talked about teenager in English football – after his brief cameo for Arsenal in their 3-0 win over Brentford on Super Sunday made him the youngest ever Premier League player at 15 years and 181 days.
The midfielder spent three minutes on the west London pitch, and didn’t touch the ball, but the experience of senior football was there for a player who was born after the Emirates Stadium was built – and was 12-years-old when the UK went into the first coronavirus lockdown. Playing in an older age group has been the way of the world for the attacking midfielder so far. Those familiar with his rise up the youth football have seen him playing above his age group since Under-13 level.
“When I saw him he was different gravy,” the same scout adds. “I first spotted him when I was working at other Premier League clubs when he was playing for Arsenal’s Under-13s as an 11-year-old. “But it was a few years later – when I was watching him as a Manchester United scout -that he had developed into what we call a Grade A academy player.
“I would have marked him as a signing at United if it was down to me but trying to get a player from Category One academy team to another one is difficult. “Even when he was around 12 or 13 years old, you could see that he was the pick of the bunch, the best player on the pitch – even for the year group above. Every time he got on the ball, he looked to make things happen. He always posed a threat, took set pieces and put in good deliveries with them.” The coaches at Arsenal have continued to play him above his age group, but his rise over the past 12 months has been nothing short of dramatic. Last season, he was a regular for Arsenal’s U16s aged 14 but only made his first start for the U-18s in February of this year. The teenager made an immediate impact, scoring two assists in a 4-2 win over Reading U-18s as his stock at Arsenal grew even further.
“He’s someone very highly thought of here as there are other boys at Hale End as well,” said Under-18 coach Dan Micciche after that game. “I trusted him to perform today and he got two assists. Knowing him, he will leave here disappointed that he has not scored a goal or he’s misplaced a few passes because he’s got that champion mentality.”
The phrase “champion mentality” often pops up when an Arsenal youth product comes through the ranks into the first-team. The same term was given to Bukayo Saka by one Arsenal scout when the winger was in the Gunners’ Under-9s team. And one wonders whether it was that mentality that influenced Mikel Arteta’s “gut feeling”, before the Arsenal first-team manager got Nwaneri involved against Brentford, a few weeks after the player played Under-21 football for the first time.
“The first time I met him, I looked into his eyes and I had that feeling. I really liked what I saw,” said Arteta after he gave Nwaneri his debut. “[Academy manager] Per Mertesacker and the academy staff are giving me really good information, [sporting director] Edu as well.”