Most people would not have heard of Ethan Nwaneri until Sunday. The Hale Ender, who only made his under-21s debut two weeks ago, enjoyed the latest step of his meteoric rise as he was brought on during the closing stages of Arsenal’s 3-0 win over Brentford to become the youngest player in Premier League history at 15 years and 181 days old.
Mikel Arteta admitted after the game that he had only met the teenager very recently himself. “I met the boy (and) really liked what I saw,” the Spaniard said in his post-match press conference. “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. Yesterday he had to come because we have injuries, especially the injury of Martin (Odegaard), and then I had that feeling from yesterday that if the opportunity could come that I was going to do it and I just done it.”
Such a rapid ascent may give the impression that Nwaneri’s story has come from nowhere, but in reality this is far from an accident. Instead it’s the result of a deliberate policy shift that has brought the Arsenal academy into the spotlight once again.
During the latter stages of last season as the Gunners squad depth was pushed to the limit, it became a regular sight to see members of Kevin Betsy’s under-23 side filling spots on the senior bench.
Externally this was viewed as a great success, but internally the promotions came to be viewed as something of a poisoned chalice for the youngsters involved. Many found themselves unable to get regular game time of any sort for much of the second half of the season as they were unable to play for the under-23s while being needed for a first team squad in which their chances of ever playing were limited by Arteta’s preference for more experienced substitutes in important games.
The Spaniard would probably point to the fact that his team were in the race for the top four almost up until the final day of the season as a reason explaining this. He has spoken before about the importance of not overexposing young players and would likely have been wary of demanding too much from them by asking them change pivotal matches in the race for the Champions League.
The final game of the season against Everton though seems to have been a turning point for some. As it became increasingly clear that the Gunners were not going to make the Champions League places Arteta’s decision to bring on more senior players instead of finally giving the academy players a chance is understood to have given many the impression that the next steps in their career may be better served elsewhere.
Perhaps the most high profile example of this is Omari Hutchinson. Although Hutchinson was not involved that day against the Toffees, the 18-year-old was on the bench 10 times for the first team without getting any minutes last season. This combined with the summer arrival of Marquinhos are said to have convinced him that his chances of getting senior football would be better served elsewhere, although sources within the club have expressed some surprise that he ultimately chose Chelsea as the destination to do that.
With the success stories of Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and Eddie Nketiah in recent seasons, Arsenal have developed a reputation for giving young players a chance, and the club are wary of anything that might damage that. Their talent ID team begins scouting players as young as eight, and with so many academies in London competing for the stars of tomorrow, the Gunners want to use their track record as an edge to recruit the very best. With this in mind they have begun to take steps to ensure that can be done.
The club’s social media team have been encouraged to go big on the academy this season particularly with the appointment of Jack Wilshere as under-18s coach, while the ‘Inside Hale End’ documentary series has been launched in partnership with Adidas to provide people with an insight into how Per Mertesacker’s set up works. Edu is understood to have taken a keen interest in the academy’s fortunes and views it as in important part of his job to know which prospects are coming through before making decisions on what to do with the first team in the transfer market.
This increase in focus on the academy’s reputation perhaps played a part in Nwaneri’s headline-grabbing debut on Sunday. Speaking after the game Arteta admitted that he was trying to make a statement by bringing the 15-year-old into the first team set up. “That we want to give opportunities when there is talent, when there is personality and when there are players who love what they do so much and when they have no fear,” the Spaniard said when asked what Nwaneri’s introduction said about the club. “The doors are open to explore where they can go.”
It’s also worth noting that Nwaneri is still only on schoolboy terms and therefore could be poached by other clubs before signing a professional deal at Arsenal. Several other Premier League clubs are said to be interested in the 15-year-old and Arsenal’s desire to convince him to continue with them will surely have played a part in the decision to hand him debut.
Nwaneri was of course not the only academy prospect involved with the first team on Sunday. Full backs Reuell Walters and Lino Sousa were both heavily involved in pre-season and were with the squad thattravelled to the Brentford Community Stadium. The possibility that they could follow in Nwaneri’s footsteps at some point this season will surely serve to only solidify Arsenal’s status as a pathway for young talents to make their way into the game.
In a world where the Gunners are not able to compete financially with club’s at the very top end of English football, their academy has a crucial role to play in allowing them to try to keep pace. Ensuring it’s reputation as a place where young players will be given a chance is going to be key to that and as they seek to preserve that notoriety high profile stories like Nwaneri’s will surely be a great help.