Gedion Zelalem: Why Arsenal’s ‘New Fabregas’ may have to wait
This summer, it seems that Arsenal finally have money to sepnd – and the intention to spend it. But while Wayne Rooney makes eyes at Chelsea, Luis Suarez continues to split the football world and others continue to splash the cash, could it be that Arsenal’s most promising arrival has already presented himself?
Liverpool head honcho John Henry is unsure what’s being smoked at the Emirates Stadium, but really it’s just 16-year-old Gedion Zelalem causing dizzy heads. The youngster’s eye-catching cameos during the club’s Asia tour have already threatened to break the internet – and it looks like there’s plenty more to come.
Zelalem signed for the north London side last season, immediately bypassed the academy team and headed straight for the Under-21s, where his stellar performances led to a fast track into Wenger’s first-team set-up. No longer can Arsenal’s tight-lipped youth coaches keep a lid on this teenage sensation, what with Arsene Wenger acknowledging that the youngster is “improving very quickly”. Already he has fine technique and pace but it is his vision, awareness, and composure both on and off the ball that is really turning heads at this early stage.
In front of 60,000 frenzied locals in Indonesia his exquisite ball – stroked with the outside of his foot, a frequently-used weapon in his considerable armoury – found another of the club’s promising German contingent, Thomas Eisfeld, who applied the finishing touches the assist deserved.
Against Vietnam in Hanoi, a perfectly weighted slide-rule pass to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was integral to a move which finished with a simple tap-in. He followed that against Wenger’s old club Nagoya Grampus – arguably the tour’s toughest game so far – with a magnificent through ball to Theo Walcott, who chipped over the goalkeeper for Arsenal’s third goal of the game.
Zelalem has come a long way in a short time: just two years ago he was playing for the Olney Rangers Soccer Club in Maryland, on the outskirts of Washington DC. Ethiopian-born of German descent, he had moved with his family from Berlin to Bethesda, Maryland in 2006. New surroundings obviously do not trouble him.
While it’s one thing showcasing your skills in sapping heat against an Indonesian XI, finding such space in the unforgiving Premier League is a world away. At times on tour, for example, his decision-making has needed improvement and physically there is still work to do. But that will come with time and experience – and in the meantime there’s no shortage of interest in the kid.
He has already been capped by Germany at youth level, but with Zelalem having attended a US Under-15 training camp, there’s already talk of Jürgen Klinsmann bending his ear to apply for a full US passport. But that may not be beneficial to the player and his club: Zelalem’s current status as an EU citizen grants him a work permit, raising his transfer value but also avoiding problems that the club have run into with Ryo Miyaichi and Joel Campbell.
Arsenal supporters have prided themselves on their emerging youngsters since the 1930s when they hailed the “Boy Bastin” – Cliff, who went on to be the Gunners’ leading goalscorer for over half a century. Although Arsenal’s academy has earned many plaudits during the Wenger era – partly because the manager so enjoys nurturing young players, partly because the financial model has demanded it – but this lineage runs through the club’s illustrious history, from local lad Charlie George winning the double in 1971 to a juvenile import named Liam Brady making waves from across the Irish Sea.
Jack Wilshere is the latest big name in that long line, following Cesc Fabregas just before him; both those players were 16 when they made their Arsenal debuts, and Zelalem is the latest wunderkind to get truly excited about.
With the Emirates Cup and a friendly against Manchester City in Helsinki on the horizon there’s still time for this precocious prodigy to truly stamp his mark before the big kick-off on August 17. But whether Wenger keeps him in the front line or brings him through more gradually in the cups – Wilshere had to wait a year after his debut for another league game, while Fabregas was held back for a similar period after his first steps – there’s no doubt that Zelalem will be closely watched and much-discussed from here on in.