The 5 kids handed Arsenal debuts by Mikel Arteta – & how they’ve fared

London, England, 18th September 2022. Ethan Nwaneri of Arsenal applauds the fans after the Premier League match at Brentford Community Stadium, London. Credit: Alamy
London, England, 18th September 2022. Ethan Nwaneri of Arsenal applauds the fans after the Premier League match at Brentford Community Stadium, London. Credit: Alamy

Arsenal are renowned for giving opportunities to young players – and current manager Mikel Arteta has tried to maintain that tradition.

Arteta has played a key role in the development of Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka and has also handed senior debuts to some academy graduates.

We’ve looked at the five academy graduates to make their debut under the Spaniard to see how they’ve fared so far.

Folarin Balogun

After registering 10 goals and four assists in 15 appearances for Arsenal’s Under-23s in 2019-20, Balogun unsurprisingly caught Arteta’s eye. The striker was also the subject of a £5million bid from Brentford and then a £3million bid from Sheffield United but Arsenal refused to sell.

He regularly trained with the first team and made his senior debut as a second-half substitute in their 3-0 Europa League win over Dundalk in October 2020. Balogun made three more appearances in the Europa League in 2020-21, scoring against Molde and Dundalk before signing a new long-term contract.

The New York-born England Under-21 international was later handed his first Premier League start on the opening day of the 2021-22 season, a defeat at newly-promoted Brentford, and further opportunities weren’t forthcoming.

“I have played youth football for a little while, I have obviously scored a lot of goals at that level and improved at that level drastically from when I started,” Balogun said in November 2021.

“I do feel like I am ready for a new challenge but I am not sure what that might be, it might be a loan or if I am needed at Arsenal then I am here and the gaffer knows that. I am definitely open to a new challenge but it is something that whatever that challenge is I will be ready.”

Balogun got his wish with a half-season loan move to Championship side Middlesbrough, where he had his moments but never quite caught fire. Now he’s shining away at Reims, with eight goals in his 15 Ligue 1 appearances a statement that he can return to make a difference for his parent club in the near future.

Ben Cottrell

The first of three midfielders on this list, Cottrell grew up idolising Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard and joined Arsenal’s academy at the age of nine. He was reportedly attracting interest from Borussia Dortmund and Marseille in 2018 but ultimately decided to extend his stay in north London.

After impressing for the Under-23s, the midfielder made his senior debut in the 4-2 win over Dundalk in December 2020 but is yet to add to that solitary first-team appearance. Cottrell’s progress was derailed in February 2021, when he picked up an injury that ruled him out for the rest of the 2020-21 season.

He made his comeback for the Under-23s in August 2021 and was linked with a loan move away, only to pick up a new problem that October. The 21-year-old suffered yet another injury setback in January 2022, tearing his adductor muscle as he scored a penalty against Derby County Under-23s.

“Sometimes life isn’t fair, but I’m forever grateful for what I do have,” Cottrell posted on Instagram. “Just another obstacle to overcome, the surgery went well, back to the hard work to get back!”

He’s been sidelined throughout 2022. Fingers crossed he can kick on when he finally returns. 

Miguel Azeez

Azeez made his Arsenal debut alongside Cottrell in that 4-2 win over Dundalk and showcased his skills during an impressive cameo, evading pressure with a brilliant turn in the middle of the park.

He’s also yet to make another competitive first-team appearance for Arsenal but did score in a 2021 pre-season friendly win against Watford. The midfielder then decided to join League One side Portsmouth on a season-long loan deal in search of regular first-team football.

The 20-year-old was recalled by Arsenal in January 2022 after making just 10 appearances for the club but still managed to impress manager Danny Crawley.

“I believe this has been a fantastic stepping stone in Miguel’s journey – moving into a senior environment and playing League One football,” Crawley told Portsmouth’s official website.

“I have absolutely no doubt that he’ll go on to become a top player and this will have been an important part of his development. He leaves here a better player and hopefully a better person. We’ve been impressed with his focus and commitment to improve.

“There are some areas of his game that are beyond this level and other areas that he needs to keep working at, as with any young player.”

He spent the rest of the campaign back in the Gunners’ youth ranks and is now gaining further senior experience out at Spanish Segunda side UD Ibiza.

Charlie Patino

Regarded as one of the best players to ever come through Arsenal’s academy, Patino showed why he’s so highly rated with a stunning solo goal against Manchester United Under-23s in September 2021.

After much clamour from supporters, the midfielder made his competitive debut for Arsenal in a League Cup quarter-final against Sunderland in December 2021. He marked the occasion with a goal in injury time, becoming the youngest player to score on his Arsenal debut since Jon Sammels in 1963.

“A beautiful moment,” Arteta said after the game. “He is a kid that is coming through our system, a lovely kid. He is training with us almost every week. It was a dream. As a debut to come here, to score in front of our fans, a really special moment.

“I think that is very positive [that the fans were singing his name]. They heard about him and know what he can become and now we have to cook him slowly. Today was a good start, I think.

“[Too much hype around him] is what we have to avoid. He still has a lot of competition in front of him. He is really young. And he needs to go step by step. Today he was lucky, he got the opportunity and he took it really well.”

The 18-year-old was handed his full Arsenal debut in the FA Cup defeat to Nottingham Forest and has also been on the bench for a couple of Premier League games. 

Now he’s getting regular experience out on loan at Blackpool, where he’s already become something of a cult hero.

 Credit: Alamy
Credit: Alamy

READ: ‘He can have my children’ – Arsenal’s Charlie Patino has Blackpool fans raving after derby day masterclass

Ethan Nwaneri

The local lad became the youngest ever Arsenal player, and the youngest player to appear in the top flight of English football, when Arteta handed him his bow as an injury-time substitute in the Gunners’ 3-0 Premier League win at Brentford in September. He was just 15 years and 181 days old.

“I’m so proud of that for Arsenal,” Arsenal legend Ian Wright said of the young headline-maker. “To get in the team at that stage, some people might think it’s a stunt, but those people – Mikel, Per, Edu – are not putting him in there for a joke.

“They’re not going to bring people in just for the sake of it. They think very highly of him, he was playing for the U18s when he was 14. What I think this does is sent a massive message to the other academy players and shows them they all have a chance of playing in that first team.”

Watch this space.

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