Andrew Onyearu takes a look at Arsenal's most exciting young talent.
Michael Owen, Cesc Fabregas, Lionel Messi, Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane all have one thing in common, despite their widely differing playing styles.
They all made their respective teams first team debut aged 17 or just over; became established in the teams very quickly and within 5 years of those respective debuts, became, genuine world class stars. Gedion Zelalem, the latest off Arsenal’s production line of exceptional young footballers is about to join that elite list.
Except that we will have to wait five years or so for that to happen. Barring injury and the loss of focus that usually affects young footballers with success, this bold – but not original – prediction will inevitably happen because Zelalem is one of a kind.
The last time a young player caught the attention of English football like this was, ironically, the obscured but explosive introduction by David Moyes of a certain Wayne Rooney as second half substitute, 10 minutes to full time, in the Everton game against Arsenal in 2002. Just ask David Seaman to recall that entry because, at the pinnacle of one of England’s goalkeepers of all time, Rooney beat him with a dipping and swerving shot from all of 30 yards and since then, he never looked back.
On that occasion, Arsene Wenger described him afterwards as someone possessing "everything you dream to have as a footballer". In his time in England, the Arsenal manager said, at the time, he had not seen a more exciting talent. Rooney was to rise to become England’s talisman player.
Zelalem will not be 17 until January 2014. Already talked up by the media as Arsenal’s next “Cesc Fabregas” – referring to his introduction into the team at 16 alongside very experienced players – Gedion possesses skills, composure and vision that is usually only developed by years of experience, exposure and harnessing of natural ability. He has the calmness and balance of Zidane, Xavi or Iniesta; outrageous ball skills and the vision of world class players like Ronaldinho.
Yet this young man was, until two years ago, unattached to a professional club. Born to Ethiopian parents – yes, Ethiopia, a country not known for its football history and ranked 95 in the July 2013 FIFA rankings – he played for the Olney Soccer Club in Maryland, USA when he was enrolled in the Arsenal Academy in January 2012, having been spotted by scout Danny Karbassiyoon.
He appears to have been moved quickly up the cadres to give him exposure and outing at the highest levels. Now already a regular at under 21 level, it appears that the thinking within the club is that his talents will mature much more quickly in the exalted company of the first team although his actual football development is understandably some way behind.
For a central midfielder, he has one part of the requisite physical attributes. Standing at 6ft 1”, he is still of slender build, consistent with his age. This, doubtless, will be a major feature of his development by his handlers within the team.
As also will be the defensive part of his game because, given Arsenal’s current formation preference, there is heavy reliance on the midfield three in this respect. But what he lacks in these areas, he has more than abundant in a number of others.
As team mate Jack Wilshire observes, “…He sees passes that not a lot of players can,’ said Wilshere.‘You think “what’s he doing?” and suddenly someone is in. He’s only 16 and he’s an exciting player. ‘It won’t be long before he’s ready. He’s so comfortable on the ball. Even in training he’s a nightmare to play against. ‘He keeps the ball away from you and shields it. He’s not very big but he’s strong.
‘He drifts in and out of players. He’s quite a strong lad and technically he’s right up there.” This is as good an endorsement as any from a potential midfielder partner who trains with him.
His manager, the same Arsene Wenger who was right in every sense about Rooney that many years ago and being understandably very controlled in his assessment added that “…he is improving very quickly. It is that vision, the creative ability on the ball and the ability to influence a game playing from a deep lying position that marks him out for special attention.
This is skill that is not coached. Players are born with it because it is unmistakably evident from a combination of an astute football brain; vision and an ability to execute the pass to coincide with the run and positional placement of a teammate. His game is simple and uncomplicated. The way in which he moves the ball and makes himself available for the second ball is exceptional for any player never mind a 16-year-old.
Zelalem holds German as well as Ethiopian nationality. Zelalem moved with his family from Berlin to the United States in 2006. He is currently a US permanent resident. He is eligible for and it is understood, will obtain US nationality through family ties as he is still a minor. This will, expectedly, spark a three-way tussle for his mercurial skills at national level although he has already represented Germany at under 16 level.
It is way too early to begin to consider him in the breadth that he is being mentioned and even this commentary falls into the same mould of praise and excitement.
But this is what happened when some of the world’s great players like Maradona, Pele, Zidane, and Messi hit the scene. People saw them and marveled. If Zelalem fulfills his potential, he may yet end up being Arsenal’s Academy’s most accomplished product in the next few years.
His former coach, Matt Pilkington even went as far as saying that “ … He is able to set the tempo like no other. We will see Gedion in Arsenal's first team three years from now”.
It seems clear that he will get game time in the cups. How he deals with these will confirm whether he is fast tracked into the Premier League and Champions League teams.
What does 2013/14 hold for Zelalem's development?
image: © lodekka