After breaching West Ham’s defence six times, reducing David Moyes to the glassy-eyed stare of a pensioner sitting on a seafront bench and remembering lost friends, Arsenal were firmly in party mode when Ethan Nwaneri was introduced to proceedings.
In 2022, Nwaneri made headlines when he came off the bench to make his Premier League debut against Brentford at the age of 15 years and 181 days.
Arsenal Twitter, never normally understated, went into overdrive. Tickets were sold to the 2031 Ballon d’Or, where Nwaneri would inevitably beat a greying Mbappe and a Football Manager regen to the big prize. Quieter voices urged caution.
“With Ethan, you have to remember his age (16),” Arsenal Under-21s head coach Mehmet Ali told The Athletic in January 2023.
“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.”
After regular appearances on the Arsenal bench this season, Mikel Arteta decided to bring on Nwaneri for the final 13 minutes of normal time at West Ham as he replaced Gabriel Martinelli.
While the opposition scarily resembled a dead parrot for motivation and mobility, the teenager produced a litany of polished touches and effortless dribbles to leave the buoyant away end cooing with appreciation.
Nwaneri finished with a pass success rate of 83 per cent, won two of his three defensive duels and had 20 touches in total. Not bad when other lads his age are discovering the joys of downing two-litre bottles of cider on perishing park benches.
Ethan Nwaneri could have scored tbh! His ball carrying skills and positioning is top notch. I want to seem fully in our team next season. No loans pls
— ً (@_AFChood) February 11, 2024
Speaking after the match, Arteta said: ‘There is something that you have to earn in your team and that is the trust of your team-mates.
‘I had two things. One, the players on the bench whispering, ‘Bring Ethan in!’ – which is a great thing to hear.
‘The other thing is for your team-mates to give you the ball all the time. If they do that, it’s because they really trust you and you only have to see how many times he was involved in that. So it’s a great sign.”
Arteta was one happy bunny after Arsenal followed up their season-shifting win over Liverpool with this comprehensive victory over a West Ham side that’s caused the Gunners problems in the past.
“What I want as a team is for them to be better and better,” Arteta said.
“The way they trained this week, they were totally focused after Liverpool to say: ‘Okay, now it’s a big task and now it’s time to go another level and beat West Ham’. And they certainly did that today.
“It’s true we are missing some big players for us, and some big starters, but at the end, players need possibilities and chances to judge them. And certainly, today we can judge them and say how good they are.
“We are maintaining and building some momentum now, and the performances have been really strong, as well as the results in recent weeks.
“We need to maintain that because the other teams are doing it as well, we are not the only ones, and we need to recognise that.”
With Arsenal firmly in contention for domestic and European glory, Nwaneri might not feature again for the first team this season.
But his p*ss-taking cameo at West Ham hints at a footballer with an incredibly bright future at the Emirates.
By Michael Lee