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Ethan Nwaneri & his record-breaking Arsenal debut: Why he can't compared to Jack Wilshere - for now

COMMENT: The shirt swamped him. The opposition towered over him. But 14 years ago, a 16 year-old Jack Wilshere played Wigan Athletic off the pitch in a round of 16 Carling Cup clash.

Just a few weeks after making his Premier League debut, Wilshere was given a start by Arsene Wenger and ran the game. He sprayed the ball to all corners of the pitch. He bounced off monsters like Wilson Palacios and Manu Figueroa. This was Jack Charlton and Gazza all over again. With this performance, Wilshere confirmed what the country - and beyond - had been buzzing about for over 18 months.

Indeed, even this column - just months previous to that Cup performance - had been contacted by two Italian agents seeking to set up a meeting with Wilshere's father on behalf of Juventus. England knew about this prodigy. As did Europe. His game against Steve Bruce's Latics only affirming, rather than surprising, those inside the game about Wilshere's great potential.

Cycle through to today and suddenly - surprisingly - Arsenal have another Wilshere-type on their hands. He didn't touch the ball. He was on the pitch for all of three minutes. But Ethan Nwaneri is now drawing comparisons with Wilshere - and another academy wunderkind in Cesc Fabregas. But the difference is, the appearance at Brentford of the 15 year-old - who now stands as a Premier League record breaker - was completely unexpected. Indeed, some are saying even unwarranted...

Harsh? Perhaps. And really only time will tell whether Mikel Arteta's instinct to follow his "gut" and hand Nwaneri his fleeting chance was the right call. But early doors, you suspect we aren't seeing the emergence of Wilshere or Cesc - at least not yet. Wenger introduced both midfielders, at 16, with the intention of playing them consistently at senior level. They weren't starters. They weren't regulars. But they were involved. They added something to their respective teams. Wenger selected both youngsters as he saw a value in what they could contribute over the season.

In Nwaneri's case, as we say, time will tell. But you do feel this was a one-off. And it could be argued it's come a little too easy. As talented as he is, it's a struggle to see Nwaneri making a contribution at his stage in his career similar to the 16 year-old versions of Wilshere and Cesc.

But there could be some similarity between Nwaneri and Wilshere away from the pitch. As mentioned, before that debut season, Europe's biggest clubs were exploring the prospect of ferrying Wilshere away from not only London Colney, but England. And we can say, at that time, the one factor in Arsenal's favour was that Wilshere's family were handling his career. There was no intermediary to tap for more information - or to register an interest. Those clubs eager to explore the prospect of nicking Wilshere away from Arsenal had nowhere to go.

But today, there has been some concern inside the Hale Academy about holding onto Nwaneri. We now know Manchester City and Liverpool have been in contact, while an independent scout has confirmed he encouraged former employers Manchester United to take a serious look at a 14 year-old Nwaneri last year.

And with such interest, there is a line of thought that the one carrot Arteta had to offer to convince the youngster about his future at Arsenal was this first team debut. With scholarship forms not to be signed until he's 16. A pro deal not to be offered until he's 17. At this stage, there's very little Arsenal can do to prevent Nwaneri from skipping out and moving north. A taste of senior football, albeit for three minutes, the one card Arteta could play beyond any big promises from the likes of City and Liverpool.

Danny Murphy, the former Tottenham midfielder, believes such was the case: "I am not convinced it is the best move for a young player, I am really not.

"I think he is probably trying to keep a young superstar happy."

Indeed, Murphy went further this week, questioning how Nwaneri's older Academy colleagues would see their young teammate get his chance.

"He is obviously a super-talent," he stated, "doing well in training and impressing everybody, but surely they have got other 18, 19 and 20-year-olds who are further ahead in their development who could have gone on the bench?"

It's a good argument. Though this can cut both ways. Yes, the debut could draw some resentment. Or it could act as motivation for the likes of Lino Sousa or the fit-again Reuell Walters. Seeing Nwaneri jump from an U21 debut to the Premier League does suggest that Arteta will give you a chance. Though, of course, all this hinges on whether the manager selected Nwaneri on merit, rather than due to outside pressure.

Those in the know. The scouts. The school teachers. His senior teammates. They've insisted this week that Nwaneri's involvement was deserved. It was warranted. To a man, they say as a talent, even at 15, they've witnessed something special.

At Nwaneri's age, there's a leap from the U18s to the U21s. A chasm from the U21s to the first team. And a galaxy from a three minute cameo to a Premier League start. Potential? Promise? Sure. But after three minutes of senior football - and a game and a half at U21 level - Ethan Nwaneri can't be compared to a 16 year-old Jack Wilshere all those years ago.



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Chris Beattie
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Chris Beattie

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