Hale End’s Next SUPERSTAR: Brooke Norton-Cuffy

*This was written before Brooke’s confirmed move on loan to Rotherham United.*

This article was not supposed to be about Brooke Norton-Cuffy.

I was writing about something else and was about halfway through. I went to get a drink, opened Twitter, watched this video, came back to my computer and immediately opened a new document.

It made me laugh out loud, and it clearly made those in the room laugh too, perhaps uncomfortably. But despite a wry smile at the end… I don’t think he’s joking.

As I said in my previous article, watching the All or Nothing documentary, I found Mikel Arteta a little by-the-manual at times. His pre-game speeches sometimes felt a little forced, like he’d read a book that’s told him to use props, visual aids, hand gestures and ensure to x y and z.

But those speeches aren’t for me. They’re to inspire a group of footballers under enormous pressure, and the group of people he’s speaking to include many whose first language isn’t English. Though I might think someone with “Lions don’t care about the opinions of sheep” as their phone screensaver is a bit cringe, I don’t have to go out and do my job in front of millions of people every week. These are not normal working conditions. Footballers, especially those who’ve grown up in academies, think differently — they have to. Someone saying what Norton-Cuffy did about a promotion at an insurance firm would be derided… but for a footballer… I like it.

So… who is Brooke Norton-Cuffy?

Brooke Norton-Cuffy is an 18-year-old English defender, and having just returned from a loan spell at Lincoln City has signed an extension to stay at Arsenal, penning his first professional terms just last year. Norton-Cuffy was Arsenal’s scholar of the year last year, signing for Arsenal aged just 10 having asked to be released by Chelsea as they weren’t playing him enough… they never learn. Brooke made his U23s debut aged just 16 and recently won the U19 European Championships playing alongside the likes of Carney Chukwuemeka and Alfie Devine.

So that’s all fine; he sounds like he’s on a good path. The real question is… is he good enough for the first team? Before we look at his game, let’s look at what those around him say about that.

Arsenal youth expert Jeorge Bird, someone who spends a lot of time watching youth games and does excellent reporting on the academy thinks Norton-Cuffy has one of the most realistic chances of making it into Arsenal’s first team from the current crop. And Michael Appleton, Brooke’s manager at Lincoln and now working with Charlie Patino at Blackpool, said this:

“I’ve been saying it behind the scenes, I think he will play for Arsenal’s first team on a regular basis. It might not be for a couple of years but it’s definitely going to happen.” – Michael Appleton, Lincolnshire Live

Appleton has a reputation for spotting young talent and having sent two of our brightest young prospects to work with him, he’s clearly someone who the club listen to and trust.

But that’s all talk. How does he look on the grass?

As for his strengths, Brooke says of his game… 

“I would say I’m a full-back that likes to get up and down. I do like to do attacking but I don’t shy away from my defensive duties as well. I like a 1v1 battle and I like to create things. I like to have the ball at my feet and get assists and goals for my team.” – Brooke Norton-Cuffy to Arsenal.com, upon signing his new deal

And having looked at him now for Arsenal’s youth teams and Lincoln, I can say he’s all that and more — Norton-Cuffy, to me, has absolutely everything you want from a modern full-back. He compares himself to Reece James, and I’d say that’s a pretty good starting place as a comparison to get your eyes adjusted.

Let’s first look at the defensive side of his game

This is not to reduce him down and he certainly has other strengths, but I would say Brooke’s biggest asset is his physical capacity. His build, his pace, his body type and his capacity to repeat actions — but all of that requires the intelligence to use them properly.

That means defensively he can be aggressive and proactive in the duel when 1v1, where he is very good.

Where some defenders may slide in, delay you or block off your lane, Brooke’s physicality means more often than not he can step in and knock you off the ball — if you get it right, 9/10 you’ll stop the attacker and psychologically it’s hard to deal with someone that you know can simply bully you off it.

Often the ball breaks to his teammate from a duel he wins, starting a transition. The way he puts his back into players and attacks the challenge and space reminds me of Saka and Jesus respectively. 

Sometimes he can be a little clumsy with it, but that’s only natural at 18, and his tackling technique seems fine. 

His physicality may not translate in first-team football as well as it does in youth team football, but my suspicion is it would, and the signs at Lincoln looked good. He says as a child his father would make him do wall-sits for bad behaviour — it’s clearly paid off on the physical side.

He also has great recovery capacity, something Arteta likes because it means you can push the defensive line up and squeeze the opposition knowing a ball in behind on the transition isn’t as dangerous as it could be.

It also means his marauding forward doesn’t cost his team as much as it could, manoeuvring himself at speed to advantageous positions to block the attacker’s path. 

He does well to clear to the exterior when he needs to clear the ball, though I think at times he can be a little overzealous with that, and perhaps with time and confidence, he can take the ball down a bit more and look to play to feet.

Aerially, his physical capacity helps him too. He’s a good height, 5’11, but his use of his body means he is rarely beaten even by taller opponents, or those with a better leap or spring. 

Either he can win the header by getting under the player and putting them off, wait for the ball to bounce and move to the right position — and it all stems from the use of his body.

Watch Gabriel Jesus winning headers — it’s not about his height, it’s all about his movement and body shape, arriving at the right time to attack the space and the ball, and using his body to block the lane.

A great example of it here for Norton-Cuffy against Accrington Stanley.

Finally on the defensive side of things, positionally he’s very responsive and doesn’t get dragged by the man or the ball all too often, staying with his man well.

He reads things nicely and though it’s difficult to say what “good positioning” is in general as it’s relative to the phase of play, his decision-making across what I watched of him looked good for someone of his age — again, his body helps him in all these, he can respond quickly if something goes wrong. 

He can be caught in the midfield on the transition, but that’s the price you pay for an attacking threat, and I’d like to see him stop the cross more but I suppose it depends on what the manager’s instructions are.

No major concerns defensively — the capacity is there, and a basic set of competencies that can be coached. He’s played as a centre-back on a number of occasions, as well as a right-back and inverted left back too — which is why I referred to him as just a ‘defender’ at the beginning. Who knows where he’ll end up?

Going forward though, there are a few things you can’t coach, that he has in spades. 

That drive and hunger to compete, get forward and make something happen. His driving runs, often infield, are almost the trademark of his game, getting the crowd off their seat.

He’s comfortable inside and outside, both on and off the ball. Because of that, he is perfect for a positional play team, as he can pop up in different areas, and does with regularity. 

His off-the-ball movement is really good for such a young player…

…trying to make himself available and getting himself quickly to advantageous positions for his teammates to find him on either foot, all over the park.

He’s not necessarily strongest as a clockwork passer like Zinchenko. He doesn’t have an armchair in the half-space — he’s a mover, a fizzer. 

And when he gets on the ball his super-power is carrying the ball forward. His decision-making in terms of releasing the ball is generally good, though a little raw. 

He has a good passing range and can receive and play on both feet…

…another tick for Arteta as a full back.

On ‘The Beautiful Game Podcast’, he confirms that he used to be a striker as a young player, and made the transition to right back at the U16 level — and it shows. I’m not sure if he was joking, but he said he used to score 100 goals a season at U10 to 13 level, and scored 15 goals against Aston Villa once. I wouldn’t be surprised. (4/5mins)

His touch is a little loose when he receives it at times, and I’d like to see him open out his body and play forward a little more, but the basics are there and he does them consistently well — something the coaching staff at Arsenal, as seen when Albert Stuivenberg speaks to Gabriel in All or Nothing, are keen to emphasise.

[Brooke 1v1 Forward] He wins 1v1s going forward easily, beating players on the in or outside. While I wouldn’t say he is the best crosser of the football, especially from deep, he can deliver well at times.

He gets the odd assist and he’s scored a couple of decent goals, a great sweeping finish here against Sheffield Wednesday in March.

The main thing you feel when Brooke plays, for me, is excitement. Because of his superb physical capacity and ability on either foot, he is an archetypal modern full-back. Watch how Pep used Kyle Walker for Man City against West Ham away a week or two ago, and you’ll see how full-backs can be utilised in so many more ways than we ever imagined.

Brooke is the sort of player who could be so useful in an Arteta team, and as an on-ball carrier, he is electric. He could add a whole different dynamic, play in a number of positions and be another Hale Ender inspiring youngsters to show there is a clear pathway to the first team. His agent Alan Redmond, head of football at Jay-Z founded agency Roc Nation recently said:

“We have Brooke Norton-Cuffy who has just signed a new contract at Arsenal and there are about seven Championship clubs looking to take him on loan.”

He is a sought-after young man, and at 18 years old, the best is definitely to come. In an appearance on The Beautiful Game Podcast he comes across as an intense and intelligent person, fully focused on having a career in football. He mentions how he would never sit still as a child, and would always want to go out to the field and play the game.

All these years later, nothing has really changed — Brooke is a mover and shaker in every sense of the word. The reason that video sticks with me is the same reason why I just have this feeling that he’ll make it. 

Mentality separates people. TJ Eyoma, Lincoln City’s number 22 said to podcast host Dej that Brooke is driven, works hard and crucially, listens. He said that when he didn’t start at Lincoln, he worked hard to get the place at full-back, and once he did he wouldn’t let it go. TJ thinks Brooke’s mindset sets him apart from other footballers. Brooke said in the afternoons when not in training, he got a gym membership and spent almost every afternoon there, running around Lincoln or doing physical work in his garden.

There are plenty of people with talent. But the confidence to say something like that, combined with the talent and a clearly excellent work ethic, makes Brooke a very exciting prospect. Considering the players around and ahead of him, I don’t think we’ll see him in the first team this season, but you never know — we did see him in first-team training recently.

I for one, am very, very excited by the prospect of what this guy could be for us. I didn’t even know I’d be writing about him — you never know what will happen.

If all of that hasn’t convinced you, then fine. But maybe this will: He rejected Tottenham in his youth. And anyone who does that is fine by me…

Alexander Moneypenny

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