From Ashley Cole to Emile Smith Rowe, Arsenal’s academy is rivalled only by Manchester United’s in the Premier League for its ability to produce top class talent time and again.
And it looks as if it has come up with the goods once more in teenage keeper Arthur Okonkwo.
The 19-year-old has put pen to paper on a long-term deal at the Emirates, and has been rewarded with a shiny new squad number and a permanent place in the first-team squad.
But who is Arthur Okonkwo? And what can Arsenal fans expect when he eventually takes up permanent residence between the sticks in north London?
Let’s find out…
Manager Mikel Arteta has handed Okonkwo the number 33 shirt, a strong indicator that he sees him as his third-choice keeper this season.
That should come as no real surprise. He named him in the squad for both Europa League semi-final clashes with Villarreal last season ahead of the more experienced James Hilson, and sees a very bright future for the youngster.
“Together with Arthur’s huge talent and hard work, we thank our colleagues at the academy for developing Arthur in recent years to get to this stage, they are doing great work with the players’ development here and should be really proud.
“Arthur will now join us every single day in training, where we look forward to watching him continue to develop and improve his goalkeeping. I know all our fans will join me in congratulating Arthur on this positive step in his career.”
Okonkwo’s rise through the ranks at Arsenal has been remarkable, but it hasn’t been without its trials in tribulations.
For reasons he has chosen to keep to himself, the keeper didn’t play for the entire 2019/20 season, and only returned to the training ground in June last year after the first wave of the pandemic had passed.
He has picked up where he left off, however – a year later and he is a fully-fledged first-team player.
Okonkwo has been named in the Arsenal squad three times, but he is yet to make his senior debut. That is expected to change in the near future, however, and he will get his chance to lay down the gauntlet when the Gunners’ pre-season friendlies get started this week.
With Bernd Leno on holiday and Mat Ryan returning to Brighton, Okonkwo and Runar Alex Runarsson are the only senior keepers available for friendlies with Hibs and Rangers.
They will both get some game-time in those matches and whoever impresses the most could be on the bench for the opening Premier League game against Chelsea on 1 August.
You need people around you to help you settle in when you move into the first-team, and for Okonkwo, it was Alexandre Lacazette
When asked by the Arsenal website who was the most helpful, he said: “When I first went over, I would say Lacazette. With all the youngsters, he helps welcome everyone and speaks to you and tells you things to do, so he’s been a big help.
“I would also say Bernd. As a goalkeeper, he has made me feel very welcome from the first time I was up there with him so a big help from both of them.”
He might have missed a year of his career, but Okonkwo had some credit in the bank in that regard – because he’s always been playing for teams above his age group.
He joined Arsenal at seven years old, and by 15, he was already playing with people three years his senior at Under-18 level. Two years later, he was playing with the Under-23s, and he first trained with the first team when he was just 16 years old.
Okonkwo is softly spoken off the pitch, but you can’t shut him up once you get him between the sticks.
He is renowned for his commanding voice in the area, and standing at 6’5, he’s a formidable presence when it comes to defending crosses.
But he’s also adept at playing with the ball at his feet, and his accuracy from kicking has garnered the praise of his coaches over the years. He attributes that to his favourite training drill…the crossbar challenge.
Speaking in the Arsenal programme back in 2018, he said: “I’m looking to improve all aspects of my play, but particularly my left foot. I like the different drills, and my favourite is the crossbar challenge.
“I start off trying to hit the bar with my left foot from the penalty spot, then move five or ten yards further back, and then move back again. That helps me develop power and accuracy.”
In the same programme article, Okonkwo writes that he styles his game on David de Gea.
But before you panic, this was in 2018, before the Spaniard’s Hollywood stops gave way to weekly blunders.
He said: “I tried playing outfield but it wasn’t for me. I enjoyed the thrill of making saves – the more spectacular the better. I suppose that’s why I like watching David De Gea play more than others.
“He’s an instinctive goalkeeper who makes fantastic reaction saves, although I do watch all goalkeepers to see what I can learn.”