With considerable expectations surrounding the development of Arsenal teenager Gedion Zelalem at present, Danny Karbassiyoon, the former Gunners player and scout who first discovered him, believes the excitement is more than justified.
One of Arsenal’s top prospects, Zelalem moved to the United States from Germany in 2006 and ended up playing six years of youth soccer in the Washington, D.C., area before he was discovered by Virginia-native Karbassiyoon.
Eventually signing for the club in January 2013 upon turning 16, the Berlin-born midfielder has since made a rapid rise through the youth academy and now finds himself on the verge of breaking into the first-team, after making cameo appearances in both the FA Cup and Champions League in 2014.
Bringing him to north London was no straightforward task, however, as Karbasiyoon told ExtraTime Radio this week.
“I’ve spent the past seven or eight years scouting for Arsenal and been all over CONCACAF and parts of South America,” he said.
“Lo and behold, though, Gedion was actually living about a mile-and-a-half away from my apartment when I was living in Maryland.
“I got a call from his coach at the time, who mentioned that he had a pretty special kid on his hands with a German passport, so I made the short drive to the high school they were practicing at that night and, after watching him for about 15 minutes, I knew he was right.
“Immediately I could tell he was remarkably aware for a kid of his age – he was 13,” he continued. “He was playing these balls that you wouldn’t expect a kid of his age to make. I started tracking him from there.
“He went to the Dallas Cup, where Arsenal’s youth team happened to be, and Steve Bould was their manager at the time.
“He got to see him and so did Neil Banfield and Steve Morrow. He did quite well and there was quite a bit of interest around him at the time from other big clubs, so we brought him over on trial shortly after.
“Relationships are huge in this aspect of the game, and I was certainly talking to his dad frequently at this time, trying to show him that Arsenal was the best place for him to go.
“Thankfully, it worked out.”
Now 17, Zelalem has already earned comparisons to Cesc Fabregas, while his international future has also been the subject of intense speculation, after finally acquiring US citizenship last month.
With many now anticipating him growing into a Premier League star, Karbasiyoon remains reluctant to put too much pressure on the former German Under-17 international’s shoulders, but adds that there is good reason for fans to be enthusiastic about his potential.
“At the end of the day, he’s still a 17-year-old kid who’s just trying to live out his dream,” he added.
“He’s very quiet away from the game but when he crosses that line and steps onto the pitch you can tell he’s comfortable.
“I think he’s comfortable playing in more advanced roles, as well as playing a bit more withdrawn in the midfield. If you have seen those couple of games where he’s played in the first-team you’ll see that he always wants the ball.
“He emanates confidence and all the players around him realise that – that’s the biggest proof of his quality. Guys like Aaron Ramsey and Santi Cazorla trust him to do something.
“He’s very dangerous going forward because of his ability to pick of these passes, so I wouldn’t say that he’s strictly a withdrawn midfielder.
“The hype is just crazy so managing expectations is still important, but it’s clear why Arsenal and US fans should be so excited about him.”