The reinvention of Granit Xhaka

Granit Xhaka was one of the last players to head back towards the tunnel at Brentford’s Gtech Community Stadium, lingering a little longer than most in front of the travelling fans and holding up his hands in gratitude as they belted out his name.

Such a reception was inconceivable not so long ago but, three years on from storming off to a chorus of boos at the Emirates Stadium and subsequently losing the captaincy, the scenes in west London last Sunday underlined a remarkable change in fortunes.

It has been a long road to this point. As recently as February, when Arsenal last faced Brentford, Xhaka could be seen rejecting the captain’s armband after Alexandre Lacazette’s late substitution. “I was not ready for that,” he explained later.

This time, though, in the absence of the injured Martin Odegaard, he wore it from the start as Arsenal secured a 3-0 victory which took them back to the top of the Premier League.

It was, he said afterwards, a “very special and emotional” day for him.

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights of Brentford against Arsenal

The armband added to the symbolism of the occasion but his redemption is above all down to performances. Against Brentford, Xhaka was excellent, much as he has been all season, and much as he was for a considerable chunk of the last one too.

His improvement owes a lot to how Mikel Arteta, the man who convinced Xhaka to stay at the Emirates Stadium in 2020, has reconfigured his midfield.

Xhaka has been viewed as a deep-lying midfielder throughout his time in the Premier League but that role is now left to Thomas Partey, with Arsenal’s full-backs, usually Oleksandr Zinchenko and Ben White, often tucking inside to provide additional support.

Xhaka has in turn been freed up to move further forward, operating as Arsenal’s left-sided No 8, with Odegaard or, against Brentford, Fabio Vieira, performing a similar role on the opposite side.

“Sometimes, you have to take players out of their comfort zone and open a different door to explore how the team will react to it, and what the opposition will do,” explained Arteta when he first made the change during the second half of last season.

Granit Xhaka’s heatmaps show how his role has evolved in the last two seasons

Xhaka looked uncomfortable in the new position at times initially. A costly injury to Partey then required him to drop back in the final few games of the campaign. By then, though, it had already become clear he relished having more licence to attack.

Now, he is flourishing.

With one goal and three assists, the last of which came in the form of his superb diagonal cross for Gabriel Jesus last Sunday, lifted into the Brentford box from precisely the area in which he is now instructed to operate, Xhaka has already had a direct hand in more goals than in any of the previous three seasons.

Arsenal are suddenly playing to his strengths.

Xhaka is less involved in Arsenal’s build-up, his numbers for passes dropping by nearly 15 per cent from last season, but he is affecting games far more in the final third, creating more chances and having over twice as many touches in the opposition box.

Xhaka has always possessed outstanding vision and passing ability and those qualities are now helping to unlock opposition defences. In addition to maximising his best qualities, the change of position is helping to conceal his weaknesses.

Granit Xhaka is contributing less defensively but thriving further forward

Those weaknesses have long frustrated Arsenal fans.

Since his arrival in the Premier League in 2016, Xhaka has made more errors leading to goals (eight) than any other outfield player. He also ranks top for red cards (four) and bookings (54). Only two players, Wilfred Ndidi and Oriol Romeu, have conceded more fouls (267).

Xhaka’s temperament has let him down at times but his position on the pitch was, until recently, another big factor behind the reoccurring issues that so infuriated the club’s supporters.

Xhaka, lacking the acceleration or tackling ability of a player like Partey – Arsene Wenger, the manager who signed him, urged him on one occasion to avoid tackling altogether – was often left exposed at the base of midfield and vulnerable to opposition runners.

The issue for Wenger, and indeed for those who went on to follow him in the dugout, was that Arsenal’s imbalanced squad lacked other options to play in front of the defence, where, in possession, if not out of it, Xhaka’s influence was key.

Lately, though, with Partey usually available for selection, Xhaka has been able to spend the bulk of his time in the opposition’s half rather than his own. There is considerably less onus on him to provide defensive security and it is evident in the statistics.

Granit Xhaka is proving influential on the left side of Arsenal’s midfield

Xhaka is averaging fewer tackles and, as a result, fewer fouls than at any other point in his Arsenal career. “I have a lot more freedom from the coach, from my team-mates,” he said last month.

That is not to say he is no longer contributing defensively. Xhaka may not be the quickest over short distances but his stamina and work-rate are second to none. This season, in fact, he has covered more ground (77.4km) than any other Arsenal player.

It should perhaps come as no surprise that he is thriving as a box-to-box midfielder given that is how Wenger described him when he arrived at the Emirates Stadium. But even with that in mind, his attacking influence this season has exceeded expectations.

Xhaka has been instrumental in bringing the best out of Jesus, whose header from the Swiss international’s cross against Brentford took him to four goals in his first seven starts.

Arsenal's Gabriel Jesus celebrates with his team-mate Granit Xhaka after scoring his side's second goal (AP)
Gabriel Jesus celebrates his goal against Brentford with Granit Xhaka

“I’m so happy to play with him,” said Jesus when interviewed by Sky Sports alongside Xhaka after that game. “He is an intelligent and quality player and all the time he is trying to find me.”

Indeed, his assist was not the only example. In total, Xhaka found Jesus with 11 passes against Brentford, including a flicked through-ball from which he almost scored a second, while the Brazilian found him on eight occasions, again, more than he did any other player.

The sample size is still relatively small but the understanding between the two players has been building throughout the season.

In fact, Xhaka has exchanged more passes with Jesus than anyone else at an average of 9.4 per 90 minutes. It bears stark contrast to his average of 6.5 per 90 minutes with Lacazette last season.

Xhaka’s role has changed but some things remain constant. His professionalism and commitment, while often overlooked by fans, have always commanded the respect of his peers – and coaches.

“He has had a fantastic attitude since he arrived here,” said Wenger. “He has a big character and he is very important,” added Unai Emery. “It’s his personality and the way he approaches his profession that makes him a special player,” said Arteta.

Now, though, he is offering plenty more besides.

His reception from the away end at Brentford capped a story of redemption but the bigger changes are to be found on the pitch, where the reinvented Xhaka can be seen charging forward and carving open opposition defences. Expect to hear his name sung again if he continues in the same vein against Tottenham.

Follow Arsenal vs Tottenham live on Sky Sports digital platforms from 11.30am on Saturday; kick-off 12.45pm and free highlights available from 5.15pm

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Arsenal Women beat Ajax to qualify for Champions League | Rangers out

Arsenal Women have qualified for the Champions League group stage following a 3-2 aggregate victory over Ajax.

Vivianne Miedema’s early second-half strike gave the Gunners a 1-0 victory in the Netherlands after they were held to a 2-2 draw in the first leg.

The Champions League group stage draw will be made on October 3 with matches starting from October 19.

Arsenal put in an accomplished display in stormy conditions in the Dutch capital and could have led in the opening 20 minutes but Stina Blackstenius shot straight at the Ajax goalkeeper.

Miedema showed her class and settled any nerves six minutes into the second half as she struck home in style, finding the corner from 20 yards after a dynamic drive towards goal.

The Dutchwoman could have added a second soon after but her shot was well saved by Lize Kop.

The Gunners had a scare in the final 20 minutes when Tiny Hoekstra stabbed wide from close range after good work by Nadine Noordam.

But Jonas Eidevall’s side survived and put their name in the hat for Monday’s group stage draw.

Rangers run Benfica close before losing out

Benfica overcame a valiant Rangers in the second leg
Benfica overcame a valiant Rangers in the second leg

Rangers saw their hopes of reaching the group stage of the Women’s Champions League ended with a 2-1 defeat in extra-time to Benfica after teenage substitute Emma Watson had scored a dramatic late goal.

Benfica, defending a 3-2 lead from the first leg at Ibrox, had dominated, but failed to convert numerous chances as Rangers keeper Victoria Esson produced a string of fine saves.

With just three minutes left, 16-year-old Watson slotted in from a corner to send the tie into extra-time.

Cloe Lacasse equalised on the night early on before Lucia Alves was sent off for a second caution and Jessica Silva wrapped things up with another goal for the hosts on the break as Benfica progressed 5-3 on aggregate.

Champions League second round results:

Slavia Prague 0-0 Valur (1-0 agg)

Vllaznia 2-1 Vorskla Poltava (3-2 agg)

Rosengard 3-1 Brann (4-2 agg)

Hacken 0-2 Paris Saint-Germain (1-4 agg)

Ajax 0-1 Arsenal (2-3 agg)

St Polten 2-2 KuPS (3-2 agg)

Zurich 3-0 Sarajevo (10-0 agg)

Real Madrid 2-1 Rosenborg (5-1 agg)

Benfica 2-1 Rangers (5-3 agg)

Juventus 2-0 Koge (3-1 agg)

What’s next for Arsenal?

Arsenal, having won both of their opening WSL matches, head to bottom club Reading after the international break on Sunday October 16, kick-off is at 6.45pm and the fixture is live on Sky Sports.

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WSL talking points: Euros inspiration continues, super Kim Little

The inspiration continues

Walking to the stadium from the tube station on Saturday morning, there was a real buzz about this North London derby – more than any other women’s game I’ve been to at the Emirates. The outside of the ground was packed full of people two hours before kick-off, with the usual mix of genders and ages.

Later on, a band played outside as more fans poured into the Emirates and the usual chants more often seen in the men’s derby were sung throughout. This had the big match feel that it rightly deserves.

The inspiration of women's football is continuing after the Women's Euros
The inspiration of women’s football is continuing after the Women’s Euros

Saturday’s record-breaking derby could not have come at a better time either. The opening WSL weekend was postponed after the death of Queen Elizabeth II, which meant a number of games set to be played at bigger stadiums – including Spurs’ match against Manchester United at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium – were unable to take place.

Some were concerned that missing out on those opportunities to play at grounds with bigger capacities would stall some of the progress made during the summer.

But with 47,367 fans inside the Emirates helping to smash the WSL record, it proves that women’s football can draw large crowds given the right exposure and platforms.

“The game is the best advertisement there can be for people coming,” Arsenal manager Jonas Eidevall said after the game. “That’s what it’s about, for people to come here and feel proud of the team, of the players and wanting to come here to support. We hope many of them come back, bring a friend and then it’s a sell-out.

“It’s not only the work of the Euros, which was such a big success. The club are investing a lot of time, commitment and energy into that. It’s important that you don’t leave things to chance and you’re trying to build the game, increase the revenue and increase the sporting success.”

Arsenal sold over 50,000 tickets for the game with 47,367 turning up for the Emirates Stadium clash
Arsenal sold over 50,000 tickets for the game with 47,367 turning up for the Emirates Stadium clash

Arsenal have long been champions of women’s football and remain one of the most successful clubs in England, but Saturday’s game was the clearest indication yet of the impact Euro 2022 is having on the domestic game.

Last weekend, we saw 3,006 fans at Prenton Park for Liverpool’s win against Chelsea – the highest ever attendance for a women’s match at the ground. Now, the overall attendance record for the league has been smashed, soundly beating the previous record of 38,262 when Arsenal and Spurs played at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in November 2019.

Expect more and more headlines like this. Women’s football is growing at an exponential rate, fuelled in part by this summer’s success, but also the good work that is being done at club level across the league.

Fans are engaging, putting their bums on seats – and sometimes standing up during a rousing chant – as the inspiration continues.
Charlotte Marsh

Arsenal show continuity, not change, is key

Attendance is not the only category in which Arsenal managed to break records.

The Gunners now have an unprecedented 10 straight wins in the Women’s Super League, while Jonas Eidevall’s side also have set a clean sheet record by beating their north London rivals. It’s now eight games without conceding a goal in the WSL.

Every player who started Arsenal's win over Tottenham was at the club last season
Every player who started Arsenal’s win over Tottenham was at the club last season

Keeping those records intact are phenomenal, considering the limited transfer window business Arsenal did this summer. Both Chelsea and Manchester City spent heavy on improving their teams, while the likes of Tottenham and Manchester United improved their depth.

But Arsenal almost stood still in the market – to the point that every single player who started Saturday’s 4-0 win over Tottenham was an existing player from last term. In fact, only a small cameo from summer signing Lina Hurtig prevented every single player on the pitch being a member from last season’s crop.

After two 4-0 wins to start the season, Arsenal are flexing out their WSL title race muscles and continuity by not changing too much in terms of personnel.

On Saturday night, they will sit six points ahead of last year’s champions Chelsea – who take on fellow title rivals Manchester City, also without a point so far, in front of the Sky Sports cameras on Sunday.

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Sky Sports Premier League HD
Sky Sports Premier League HD

No title race is won after two games but the way this Arsenal team are going, they will be difficult to take points off.

There will be bigger challenges than Tottenham and Brighton, but the more Arsenal remain consistent between now and Christmas – with no clashes against Chelsea or Manchester City currently in sight – then the more likely this gap to Chelsea and City could grow.
Sam Blitz

Spurs must find big-game solutions

In reality, it was always going to be a tough ask for Tottenham to take anything from a North London derby at the Emirates against an Arsenal side who have not dropped a point in the WSL since February.

But as Rehanne Skinner said herself, it was disappointing that Spurs did not give a better account of themselves in front of a record-breaking crowd. It was a chance to show that a summer of shrewd recruitment has given them a better chance of competing with the WSL’s elite.

Tottenham were overwhelmed by a dominant Arsenal at the Emirates
Tottenham were overwhelmed by a dominant Arsenal at the Emirates

One of the biggest issues was that Arsenal simply did not give Tottenham enough time on the ball. Spurs had just 31.5 per cent of possession, and had only three shots with one on target. But even that is hard to recall – Manuela Zinsberger was largely a spectator along with the other 47,000 plus fans in the ground.

Although not using it as an excuse, Skinner also pointed to a much larger, noisier crowd making it hard for her team to communicate, saying: “It was difficult to hear and speak and to organise things. It’s something we absolutely have to get used to with those kinds of crowds.”

Some of this could well have contributed to a poor defensive error for Arsenal’s second goal, which allowed Vivianne Miedema through to score her first. Being better organised and stronger defensively from corners will also be worked on in training over the next few weeks.

While Arsenal were dominant throughout, Tottenham hamstrung themselves in these situations.

If Spurs want to compete again at the top end of the table, building on their impressive fifth-place finish from last season, they must learn to deal with these types of games in terms of how the opposition impose themselves – as the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and others will be expected to do – and any additional hurdles that may come from growing crowds.

“The gulf in quality was because we didn’t apply ourselves properly, not because we’re not capable,” Skinner added – and she’s right. Once they figure out their strategy for dealing with these situations, there will be a marked improvement for Spurs in those ‘bigger’ games that will define the table come May.
Charlotte Marsh

‘Phenomenal’ Little makes the largest impact

It was the moment where Arsenal got the ball rolling and, while Beth Mead claimed the plaudits with a stunning finish after just five minutes, it was Kim Little who made the goal happen.

In the minute before Mead scored, Little had managed to track back expertly to stop a Tottenham counter attack. A few phases of play later, the Arsenal captain managed to wriggle away from two midfield opponents before playing the ball into Mead’s path for the goal.

Kim Little put in a perfect all-round game against Tottenham
Kim Little put in a perfect all-round game against Tottenham

That minute or so, culminating in a top-class assist, sums up the Scot in a nutshell. While she will be judged on her attacking output, it’s the defensive aspect of her game that rubber-stamps her as a complete all-round midfielder and the heartbeat of this Arsenal team.

That tackle before Mead’s goal was one of six tackles she made all game – only team-mate Katie McCabe managed more – in the middle and defensive thirds. That graft did not go unnoticed.

“Kim Little? I thought she was phenomenal in defence and how well she worked,” remarked Arsenal boss Eidevall after the game. “And let’s not forget Katie McCabe with her control, aggression and how important she is to the balance of our midfield.

“Kim and Katie McCabe were phenomenal today with the way they made the defence work.”
Sam Blitz

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WSL attendance record broken as Arsenal smash Tottenham

Vivianne Miedema’s double helped Arsenal to a superb 4-0 win against Tottenham in a North London derby that smashed the WSL attendance record.

47,367 fans packed into the Emirates to watch the Gunners sweep aside their local rivals, smashing the previous record of 38,262 when Arsenal and Spurs played at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in November 2019.

“The game is the best advertisement there can be for people coming,” Arsenal manager Jonas Eidevall said after the game. “That’s what it’s about, for people to come here and feel proud of the team, of the players and wanting to come here to support. We hope many of them come back, bring a friend and then it’s a sell-out.

“It’s not only the work of the Euros, which was such a big success. The club are investing a lot of time, commitment and energy into that. It’s important that you don’t leave things to chance and you’re trying to build the game, increase the revenue and increase the sporting success.

“It’s very special for all of us. That’s what we work for, being on stages like this and playing in front of crowds like that.”

Arsenal made sure their supporters went away happy as well as Beth Mead fired the hosts ahead inside five minutes. Her initial shot was blocked, but she instantly received it back before curling a sublime effort past Becky Spencer. It was Mead’s third goal in the opening two games of the WSL as she continues her fine form from Euro 2022.

The Gunners had chances either side of Mead’s fifth-minute strike too. The winger also had a chance well blocked after a superb squared pass from Lia Walti and, after the Gunners had taken the lead, Kate McCabe fired just over the crossbar.

Team news

  • Arsenal made one change from their WSL opener as Steph Cately replaced Stina Blackstenius. The Swedish forward was also one of the players who rotated out after a 2-2 draw with Ajax in their midweek Champions League qualifier, with Noelle Maritz and Lina Hurtig also dropping to the bench.
  • Spurs made three changes from last weekend. Celin Bizet Ildhusoy made her first start, coming into the XI along with Kyah Simon and So-Hyun Cho. Rosella Ayane, Angharad James and Asmita Ale dropped out of the XI.

Arsenal captain Kim Little had some areas of the record-breaking crowd celebrating an Arsenal second on the half-hour. However, her fierce strike on the angle only found the side of the net as the Gunners continued to press.

The hosts finally added their second shortly before the break. It was a catastrophic error from Spurs as Eveliina Summanen failed to control a pass from Spencer, allowing Miedema (44) through to slot home her first of the game.

Both of Arsenal’s goals came from corners in the second half as Tottenham continued to struggle defensively. Inside 10 minutes, Mead swung in a wonderful ball, with Rafaelle Souza (54) rising above two defenders to power her header home.

Vivianne Miedema celebrates after putting Arsenal 2-0 up against Tottenham
Vivianne Miedema scored twice in the victory at the Emirates

Miedema was on target again as Arsenal stunned Spurs with a short corner. Steph Catley sent in the ball, with the forward beating Spencer in the air to nod home. Leah Williamson could have added a late fifth, but her looping header landed on top of the net.

The Gunners were in control throughout, with Tottenham not having any chances of note. Most of the efforts went well wide of Manuela Zinsberger’s goal, with the Arsenal goalkeeper joining the 47,367 fans inside the ground as a spectator for much of the match.

Arsenal have now won their last 10 WSL matches, scoring 95 goals and conceding just twice. The clean sheet was their eighth in a row – another WSL record.

Rafaelle Souza celebrates after heading Arsenal 3-0 in front against Tottenham
Rafaelle Souza scored shortly after half-time

Eidevall: Eight clean sheets very impressive

Arsenal manager Jonas Eidevall:

“With our positioning we made Spurs look not aggressive in their press. When we see the game objectively, we haven’t conceded one scoring opportunity in the whole game, it’s so impressive. Spurs are a good team but we didn’t concede one. That’s very stable.

“We have now eight clean sheets in a row in the WSL – that’s very, very impressive and it’s a big testament. We always speak about doing good things with the ball – which we should. But let’s not forget the players are working hard in the defence, keeping clean sheets through hard work.

Beth Mead is mobbed by her team-mates after opening the scoring for Arsenal
Beth Mead is mobbed by her team-mates after opening the scoring for Arsenal

“For me, we are playing games here now with very quick turnarounds so we need to use the depth of our squad. It’s important as a team we go 100 per cent when we play. We shouldn’t have any other gear in the way we’re playing. That means we have to change players and start with fresh legs every game.

“The fearlessness today, I was so impressed with that and proud of seeing them do that. And it was so important that we did.

“I don’t want to sound arrogant but I think we shouldn’t compare attendance figures between give away tickets and sold tickets. I don’t think it’s fair doing that comparison. If you give away tickets, it’s something else. When you sell tickets, that’s how you run a football club.”

Skinner: We didn’t give a good account of ourselves

Tottenham manager Rehanne Skinner:

“I don’t think we played our game as well as we could have – I don’t think there’s any bones about that really. We didn’t do the things that we are known for as well as we could have. We were a little bit tentative in our pressing and that created some challenges for us when we were on the ball.

“We didn’t do ourselves justice, which is disappointing for everybody involved. But it’s something we have to take lessons from and improve on for next weekend.

“It’s disappointing when you make those kind of mistakes [for the second Arsenal goal]. It’s probably harder to shake off than if we’d conceded a really well-worked goal. At half time, we spoke about the fact that we gave them too much respect and that was the biggest problem.

“In the second half, we tried to apply ourselves a little bit better with that, but still, it took us too long to try and pick up and play in a way we are more familiar with playing. We didn’t do it until the last 10-15 minutes when we took the game by the scruff of the neck a little bit more, but the game was done by that point.

“We need to make sure we start quicker and better and make sure we play our way versus thinking about what they’re doing.

“We also need to make sure we’re communicating on the pitch. Not to make excuses, but it was difficult to hear and speak and to organise things. It’s something we absolutely have to get used to with those kinds of crowds… We will keep working on improving that.

“The gulf in quality was because we didn’t apply ourselves properly, not because we’re not capable. That was the biggest message to the players.

“I’ve worked with this squad throughout pre-season and the squad depth has improved and we took points off Arsenal last year. Ultimately, we started in a similar vein when we played them for the first time last year and we have to have a little more belief, prepare to be a bit braver at the start of the games and then the quality of this squad will shine through. But we didn’t give a good account of ourselves today.”

Euros inspiration continues, super Kim Little

The inspiration of women's football is continuing after the Women's Euros
The inspiration of women’s football is continuing after the Women’s Euros

All the talking points from a record-breaking weekend in the Women’s Super League as Arsenal thrashed Tottenham 4-0 at Emirates Stadium.

What’s next?

Arsenal go to Amsterdam on Wednesday to face Ajax in the second leg of their Women’s Champions League qualifier. The tie is finely poised at 2-2 following the first leg at Meadow Park, with the winner reaching the group stage.

An international break then follows with the WSL returning on the weekend of October 15-16.

What else is happening in the WSL this weekend?

There are five more WSL fixtures taking place on Sunday, including two live on Sky Sports:

Sunday 25th September 3:00pm

Kick off 4:00pm

Sky Sports Premier League HD
Sky Sports Premier League HD

  • Brighton vs Reading (2pm)
  • Leicester vs Aston Villa (3pm)
  • West Ham vs Man Utd (3pm)
  • Chelsea vs Man City, live on Sky Sports (4pm)
  • Liverpool vs Everton, live on Sky Sports (6.45pm)

Sunday 25th September 6:30pm

Kick off 6:45pm

Sky Sports Premier League HD
Sky Sports Premier League HD

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The rise of ‘different gravy’ Arsenal teen Nwaneri

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.”

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Arsenal’s Ethan Nwaneri became the youngest player to play in the Premier League, beating the previous record set by Fulham’s Harvey Elliott

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.

Nwaneri has been playing above his age group for several years
Nwaneri has been playing above his age group for several years

“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 U18s in February of this year.

The teenager made an immediate impact, scoring two assists in a 4-2 win over Reading U18s as his stock at Arsenal grew even further.

15-year-old Ethan Nwaneri (left) becomes the youngest player to ever appear in the Premier League
15-year-old Ethan Nwaneri (left) becomes the youngest player to ever appear in the Premier League

“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.

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Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta reacts following his side’s 3-0 win at Brentford

“[Academy manager] Per Mertesacker and the academy staff are giving me really good information, [sporting director] Edu as well.”

The Arsenal first-team are noticing something special too – none more so than midfielder Granit Xhaka, who has coached Nwaneri’s Under-16s team recently as the Gunners vice-captain works towards his coaching badges.

“He looks old when I see him but the club can be proud of a player like him,” said Xhaka after Arsenal’s win at Brentford.

“You can see a big difference with him and the other guys. He is very, very special.

Granit Xhaka (right) coached Nwaneri in Arsenal's U16s as part of his coaching education
Granit Xhaka (right) coached Nwaneri in Arsenal’s U16s as part of his coaching education

“Of course you have to protect him as he is very young but if he keeps going like this with his hard work he has a big, big future.”

So, what now for Nwaneri? The history books show that the path forward for the Premier League’s youngest ever players are unclear.

The Arsenal teenager has taken over the record from Harvey Elliott, who is now a regular starter at 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 one-hit wonders like Matthew Briggs, Jose Baxter and Izzy Brown – who either retired from the game early or are stuck in non-league without making any Premier League impact. Which category Nwaneri falls into will be determined in the next few years.

Harvey Elliott
Liverpool’s Harvey Elliott was the Premier League’s youngest ever player before Nwaneri

There’s international recognition up for grabs too. “He’s definitely on our radar,” England Under-21 manager Lee Carsley tells Sky Sports. “He’s a real talent and it’s a fantastic achievement.

“When they get a chance in the first-team, it’s different. It’s not a sink or swim situation but we’ve seen players who struggle to make that transition from academy football into the seniors. They all need time and that experience so it’s great that Mikel did that.”

Meanwhile, Arteta adds: “It’s just one step and all the steps in your career are not forward and you have to know that. You can go forward then backwards and then forwards. That’s, unfortunately, this industry and the football career of any player.

“All the decisions that we take, that I take, are for the club. It’s not for me, it’s not for the player. It’s because we believe he has a talent that has to be developed incredibly in the next few years and we’ll see how we manage that.”

“I’m sure they have a plan for him,” Arsenal academy product Folarin Balogun, currently on loan at Ligue 1 club Stade de Reims, says to Sky Sports. “There’s been a lot of players in the past who have kicked on early, [such as] Reiss Nelson and Bukayo, who made his debut when he was 17. I’m sure if he keeps his head down, he will see through that plan.”

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England Under-21 international Folarin Balogun, who is on loan at Reims from Arsenal, was pleased to see Ethan Nwaneri become the youngest Premier League player ever at just 15 for the Gunners.

Given the recent success of Saka and Emile Smith Rowe in coming through the Arsenal ranks, Nwaneri seems to be in the right place at the right time.

‘Arsenal and England have the new Fabregas’

Alexander Tardios – Ethan Nwaneri’s headteacher at St John’s School, Enfield – speaking to Sky Sports News:

“Ethan is a very humble boy. He’s been on the radar of clubs since he was nine years old so he’s used to the attention.

“But what is best about him is his parents and the way they have brought him up. They’re dedicated to him, they support him in every way possible. They focus on his education because they want him to have a safety net and they’ve kept him humble, which is something he is going to need now he’s been thrust in the public eye.

“They are constantly in the school checking if he’s falling behind. His father said that if Ethan didn’t pass his end of year exams, he wouldn’t let him play for Arsenal.

“His father told me something that has stuck in my mind which is the triangle: Family, the football club and education. If you have those three pillars, you have a humble boy. That’s what Ethan is.

“He is immaculately dressed [at school] – his shirt is crisp white, his tie is perfect, his blazer is perfect. If you look at Ethan’s face when he came on to the pitch [at Brentford]: Calm, collected and that’s what he’s about.

“The first time I saw him was at the school academy trial day and we had a football pitch that was full of academy players from football clubs.

Arsenal's Ethan Nwaneri in action vs Brentford
Arsenal’s Ethan Nwaneri, 15, in action vs Brentford

“You’re looking for that talent that might just about stand out, but when Ethan went out on the pitch, he was so head and shoulders above the other children, he was just passing them as if he wasn’t there – which is incredible as we’re talking about a football pitch full of academy players.

“We had to take him off the pitch because no other player could touch the ball and he got his full scholarship within eight minutes. That’s how talented he is.

“I then texted someone with a lot of knowledge about football and said ‘Do you know someone called Ethan Nwaneri?’ and his simple text to me was: ‘yes, he’s spectacular’.

“He’s skilful, powerful, fast and humble. Really, Arsenal have something special. And I will go further: England have something special as he gets older.

“This young man has it. Whatever it is, he has it. When people have the pleasure of watching him play, people will get to see what we see every day. He just has it. I would make a comparison with Cesc Fabregas, I would definitely make a comparison with Jack Wilshere because he’s got that skill and that natural ability.”

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