Interest has been building in Ethan Nwaneri throughout this season as his school registration reaches its end this summer. Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United have been monitoring the 16-year-old, but Arsenal have renewed efforts to convince him to stay in north London.
Nwaneri’s name may have only hit the mainstream after he became the youngest player in Premier League history at Brentford in September, but he has been on the radar at youth level for a while. The youngster made his under-18s debut for Arsenal at 14, scoring in a 6-1 win over Reading. He has also been known to England’s national youth setup since he was 12 playing for Arsenal’s Under-14s (a squad Myles Lewis-Skelly was also part of) in a national qualifier tournament where Arsenal topped their group.
The England Under-17 international’s talent has become widely recognised thanks to being exposed to a bigger stage this season by playing under-18s, under-21s and first-team football.
His technical ability has been displayed with his close control when dribbling as well as his clean finishing. His quick bursts of acceleration, eye for a pass and ability to ride a challenge also allowed him to stand out in youth football and have raised interesting discussions from a development standpoint.
Arsenal have been attempting to make their young players positionally flexible in recent years and that is no different with Nwaneri. This season alone he has played as a No 10, a left-sided No 8, a centre-forward and off the left wing because he has attributes to thrive in each of those roles.
“With Ethan, you have to remember his age (16),” Arsenal Under-21s head coach Mehmet Ali told The Athletic in January. “He’s got an exceptional talent and our job is to really support him with that talent. I believe playing as a pocket player, who can hold his position in a pocket, sometimes coming deeper or wider but really understanding that role is important for him.
“He has played in different areas to support his development. Not only positionally but also from a point of view of games. He’s had a good blend of being in and around first-team training, under-21s games and training as well as playing for the under-18s. That mixed programme is key for Ethan’s development to keep him working hard and also give him the best chance of playing for Arsenal’s first team.”
The combination of that mixed programme and positional flexibility has provided different challenges and opportunities.
In December, Nwaneri made substitute appearances in each of Arsenal’s mid-season friendlies against Lyon, AC Milan and Juventus. He came on as a ‘pocket player’, playing as a left-sided No 8 in these games and appeared confident and proactive, even if not everything he tried came off playing at a level he had not yet experienced.
The Under-18s’ FA Youth Cup run offered a similar platform for growth. Nwaneri’s quality shone through in the earlier rounds.
@emiratesfacup Ethan Nwaneri 🔥 #fayouthcup #afc ♬ HOMELANDER X METRO – N🅰️th🅰️n N🅰️ll🅰️
However, the closer Arsenal got to the final, the more attention to detail was needed.
When he played as a centre-forward in the semi-final win over Manchester City, Under-18s head coach Jack Wilshere could often be heard advising the youngster on where to position himself to press the City backline at goal kicks. There were also moments where Nwaneri may beat a player or two and rather than look up to find a team-mate, his head would stay down to try to finish the move himself only to be crowded out. These actions visibly frustrated Wilshere in the moment, but are normal with a player so young who still has years of development to come.
This has all been about preparing Nwaneri for a first-team environment. Last month, Wilshere admitted Mikel Arteta likes Nwaneri because ‘he gets it’ in regards to how Arsenal want to play football.
He also made a point that developing the player and person took priority over discussions over his future from a coaching perspective, saying: “As coaches, that’s what we focus on with Ethan — trying to give him the best platform, trying to give him a clear head.
“He has been exceptional in the Youth Cup as well and, to be fair, he’s been exceptional with how he’s managed school and his GCSEs. He does well at school as well by the way, which is important. Per (Mertesacker — academy manager) really believes in that: ‘better people, better players’.
“Obviously it is a new World for him. People talking about him on social media, will he stay, will he go? To manage that and still perform… Whatever he does, I wish him all the best and he deserves it because of the sacrifices he’s made. I’ve been through that and people don’t see that. Everyone would have seen that iceberg picture of the footballer where underneath you don’t see it (how much is going on) and at the moment he’s in that phase.
“But he’s been exceptional and as coaches, we don’t get involved in and we don’t talk about that.
“We all hope he stays because he’s an exceptional talent, but at the moment, it is to help him when he goes over there (to the first team).”
Focus will now be on England’s European Under-17 Championship campaign, where Nwaneri scored the winner against Croatia in the group-stage opener. England sit top of their group and have qualified for the knockout stages with a game to play as Lewis-Skelly also scored an impressive opener in their win over the Netherlands on Sunday.
Afterwards, as is increasingly becoming the case at Arsenal, the player will have a decision to make. The club are moving forward and in doing so, more thought is required with how they balance and manage the next steps in their academy players’ young careers.
Although his schoolboy terms end in June, Nwaneri has time on his side. His case is not as urgent as players who are ready to establish themselves in first-team football.
Wherever he is playing football next season, it will be interesting to see how his development continues. Arsenal will of course be hoping that it is still in north London.
(Top photo: David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)