The Arsenal Affair

The Arsenal Affair

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Gedion Zelalem and the Pressure of Fame

Two years ago a 16-year-old named Gedion Zelalem appeared for Arsenal in a pre-season tour of Asia against Nagoya Grampus. He played a through ball for a Theo Walcott goal that was so delicately sublime, it deserved to be announced by a town crier. The mass hysteria that ensued amongst fans resembled that of a shoplifter making a run for it in a supermarket, everyone stood frozen stiff, staring until it was over and then immediately contacted everyone they know to inform them of what they just witnessed.

Don't get me wrong, watching a hidden gem get unearthed is part of what footballs all about, but the more important part of the process is what advances from this. The problem with us football fans is we have about as much patience as someone who realises they need the toilet when they've just stepped on a tube train. (Unforgiving Northern Line)

Unsuprisingly Zelalem has buckled under the pressure we put upon him to develop before his mind and body are ready. Gedion has shown a number of times that his talent/ability is of high quality and his football intelligence would enable him to play for 'Mensa FC', if there was such a thing. What was clear from last season was that the Berlin-born midfielder was far from physically ready to survive in Senior football. His performances for the Arsenal U21's have been inconsistent and sometimes underwhelming. It's more then plausible that Zelalem has struggled to live up to the label of being touted as the Gunners top prospect.


This is not the first time a young, exciting prospect has stumbled in his development in North London. Arsene Wenger has become synonymous over the years for giving youth a chance and developing them into world class players. This intensifies the pressure on them to deliver as the spotlight does not shine on any other team's youth as much as it does Arsenals. This is with good reason, Ashley Cole, Cesc Fabregas, Gael Clichy, Jack Wilshere, Hector Bellerin all came through the ranks at Arsenal and have lifted silverware with the club. The opposite end of the spectrum is Arturo Lupoli, Jeremie Aliadiere, Havard Nordfeldt, all of whom were touted as the next Thierry Henry, the next Tony Adams or the next big thing.

Zelalem's label was, the new Cesc Fabregas, they both possess the uncanny ability to thread a delectable pass through the narrowest of spaces. (A little like driving through Cornwall) Whilst this is exciting for a young player to receive such praise it can sometimes come at a cost, the pressure to live up to this tag can be destructive to the focus of just trying to play well from one game to the next. Ability can only carry you so far, especially in the Premier League. The physical demands of the proffessional game are so high, very few young players make it into the first team. It's not about being small, it's about being strong enough and learning, intelligent use of the body. Coping with the pressure and the physical aspects of the game are necessities for Zelalem if he is to add to his two Senior appearances for Arsenal.

The German-born playmaker was spotted by Scout Danny Karbassiyoon playing in a tournament in the United States, having emigrated there during his childhood. He put pen to paper with Arsenal in January 2013 and played the remainder of the season with the U18s and U21s. The summer saw the USMNT youth international feature in pre season friendlies on a tour of Asia and the Emirates trophy. Zelalem took the opportunity to exhibit his range of passing sending Arsenal fans into raptures like a scene from 'A Hard Days Night'. His debut came in 20-minute cameo in the 2014, fourth-round FA Cup tie against Coventry City. Upon appearing for Arsenal he immediately broke a record to become the first player to play for Wenger, who was born after the start of the Wenger era.


Zelalem's second appearance allowed us to inspect him further as he played the 2nd half of a Champions League group game in Turkey against Galatasaray. The teenager looked comfortable in possession and was able to embody Wenger's interpretation of beautiful football, but he did nothing to enhance his reputation or harm it. The experience overall would have been positive, serving Gedion as a measuring stick for the levels he would need to attain.

The academy player's heritage has always been of interest and debate. Born in Berlin to Ethiopian parents, the family moved to the United States in 2006. By the time he signed for Arsenal he was being courted by three different national teams from all sides of the world. He seemed set on Germany, having played for their youth teams from the age of 15 upwards, however, in December 2014, he made the decision to declare himself for the United States. In 2015, he left to take part in the U20 World Cup in New Zealand and made some impressive performances with his adopted nation.

When Arsenal's pre-season came along this summer, fans were keen to see how Zelalem had developed and how he would fare alongside the likes of Ozil and Cazorla. All we saw of Zelalem was a 25-minute run-out against Singapore XI, in which, he did little to catch the eye. This was the last we saw of him in pre-season. Gunners fans took to social media to voice their frustrations at how little he had progressed in two years, some suggesting that they were done with the young prospect and couldn't see a future for him at the Emirates.

The good news for Gedi, is that he is just 18-years of age. He has time on his side despite the lack of patience of others. The one man who will show patience is Arsene Wenger. Wenger will re--iterate his policy that young players cannot be rushed. He placed the same faith in the likes of Wilshere, Ramsey, Walcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain. Zelalem will stay in the second team and work hard in the gym. Wenger will surely use him in the League Cup and if he improves physically he may look towards a loan move in the second half of the season. This will not be Gedion's breakthrough season, but it will be the season he makes the necessary adjustments to make the next step in becoming the footballer we all hope and suspect he can be..

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