Teenager Willy Gnonto is pushing for his first start at Leeds

CHRIS WHEELER: Teenager Willy Gnonto had to wait for his chance at Leeds despite being good enough for Italy’s senior side… now after two vital contributions off the bench, the forward is pushing for a start

  • Gnonto, who turned 19 this week, has exploded onto the scene after a slow start
  • He has contributed two vital contributions from two appearances off the bench
  • The dynamic forward played for Italy in all six Nations League group games

Willy Gnonto was 15 yards outside his own box when the ball reached him at Elland Road in the 84th minute on Saturday.

Leeds skipper Liam Cooper headed Lewis Cook’s free kick clear as Bournemouth pushed for a late winner with the scores level at 3-3, and suddenly Gnonto was away. There wasn’t a moment of hesitation from the young Italy international on his home debut and 19th birthday.

Head down, Gnonto accelerated towards halfway. Marcos Senesi tried shoving him in the back but the 5ft 5in forward had the balance and low centre of gravity to stay on his feet as he approached the Bournemouth goal. He cruised past Jack Stacey and spotted Crysencio Summerville’s run into the penalty area.

Willy Gnonto (centre) celebrates Leeds’ winner against Bournemouth on Sunday

Gnonto knocked the ball perfectly into Summerville’s path and the Dutchman did the rest, burying his shot past Mark Travers to seal a sensational 4-3 comeback win for Jesse March’s side. In the bedlam that ensued, Gnonto tripped over Summerville and could be seen cartwheeling to the turf.

There were similar celebrations among the Leeds players at Anfield a week earlier when Summerville fired another dramatic 89th minute winner, but only after Gnonto had the confidence to take on James Milner and Curtis Jones before crossing from the left.

Two appearances off the bench, two vital contributions from Gnonto – either side of a run-out for Leeds’ Under-21s at Crewe in midweek. No wonder Marsch is considering handing him a full debut at Tottenham on Saturday.

Summerville may be grabbing the headlines, but fans are in no doubt about the role played by their new Italian favourite who ‘eats spaghetti, drinks Moretti’ according to the chant.

Gnonto set up Crysencio Summerville for the dramatic last-gasp winner at Liverpool

Gnonto has exploded onto the scene after a rather slow start in West Yorkshire. He signed from FC Zurich late on deadline day, but only after Leeds had exhausted their other options.

The Gnonto deal was in place, but for January. The £3.8million fee reflected the fact that the teenager had entered the final year of his contract with the Swiss champions.

Marsch said that Gnonto wasn’t ready for the Premier League and kept to his word. The player had to be satisfied with run-outs for the Under-21s during his first two months at Leeds, even though he was deemed good enough to play for Italy’s senior side in all six Nations League group games against England, Germany and Hungary.

In June, he became his country’s youngest ever goal scorer when he struck in the 78th minute of a 5-2 defeat to Germany in Monchengladbach.

Gnonto came though Inter Milan’s youth system- and also the academy at Novara where Bruno Fernandes started out in Italy – before making the move to Zurich in 2020.

Gnonto, who turned 19 this week, has exploded onto the scene after a slow start at Leeds

‘Leaving Inter after eight years was certainly not easy but it was the right thing to do,’ he said. ‘Once I made my decision, I never had second thoughts.’ The son of Ivorian immigrants, his father Boris worked in textiles and his mother Chantal was a waitress. They experienced Elland Road even before their son did.

‘They said it was incredible and showed me the videos – I was buzzing,’ he said. ‘When Marcelo Bielsa was here, I watched a lot of Leeds matches at home with my dad. This a great club with a great mentality and, of course, the way they play is incredible.’ 

Gnonto suits Leeds’ high-energy, attacking philosophy perfectly. Marsch has also been impressed by his work ethic and desire to learn. After all, this is a young man who studied Latin and Greek at school and speaks English, French and German as well as his native Italian.

‘You can see how intelligent he is,’ says Marsch. ‘Wherever you play him on the pitch, his savviness, his clarity as to what kinds of things he should try, how to play against the ball.

‘He’s a very intelligent young man. He knows multiple languages, understands tactics, and then obviously has quality.

The forward was deemed good enough to play for Italy in all six Nations League group games

‘We don’t really use him as a No.9, we use him a little bit more as a No.10.. His professionalism and work-ethic and clarity for what this world is, is incredibly good. He’s very mature for an 18-year-old.’ 

Before the Bournemouth game, Marsch used his pre-match press conference to talk about the friendship between Gnonto and Summerville, and how the Italian’s attitude ‘had a really positive effect’ on his new teammate.

Afterwards, the Leeds boss laughed at how the reaction of the two youngsters to his comments mirrored their characters.

‘Yeah, it’s typical,’ said Marsch. ‘This is what happened: I saw Willy and Crysencio and I said, “Cry, did you see my press conference?” And he goes, “no”. And I go, “did you, Willy?” He goes, “yeah, I heard it. I agree. I understand that”.

‘I think they have a really strong friendship, and if we can build them up and continue to use their youthful talent and enthusiasm and desire to improve, and fearlessness, that can be a good recipe for success even with young players.’ 

It’s a partnership that is only going to grow stronger. With games in the Carabao Cup at Wolves on Wednesday and Premier League at Tottenham on Saturday, Marsch must now decide whether to give Gnonto his first start ahead of the World Cup break. Leeds fans are in no doubt that he deserves it.

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