There’s nothing more exciting as a football fan as seeing one of the kids in the youth academy come through the ranks of the club, and making an instant impact in the first-team.
Stories that surround players like Marcus Rashford and Trent Alexander-Arnold are ones that touch the souls of fans, as seeing kids from the local area burst onto the scene from seemingly nothing is one of the purest forms of narrative in football.
But there are also players that don’t get that big break from obscurity. Too many times have there been kids who are so hyped up by fans and the press that when first-team minutes do come, they are completely forgotten about after the final whistle and they fade back into the void.
For Gedion Zelalem, this is a story that will sound familiar to him.
The German-born American international was hyped up as one of the brightest youth products to come out of Arsenal in years. Spotted by former Gunner Danny Karbassiyoon in the annual Dallas Cup competition, the teenager was quickly snapped up by the Gunners the minute he turned 16.
Upon his arrival in the English capital, it didn’t take long for Zelalem to make an impression at the club. He was promoted from the Arsenal U16s to the Arsenal U21s within two months since joining the club in early 2013, and the still 16-year-old was announced as a part of the Gunners squad for their pre-season tour of Asia, in which he was involved in every game.
Hailed as “the next Cesc Fabregas”, fans we excited to see what impact the kid from Berlin could make on the first-team with talk that Arsene Wenger would bring him on in games as a sub.
But just like many good things at Arsenal, injuries and hype ruined it all. Although Zelalem impressed for the youth teams at the start and had a memorable season on loan with Rangers, the US international ultimately couldn’t hack it at a club as big as Arsenal, and this week the midfielder left the club permanently, heading to Sporting Kansas City in MLS.
Still only 22, it might be seen as ruthless for Arsenal to dismiss a player of Zelalem’s talent, but in the age of players needing to make an instant impact on the squad, the risk was simply too big for Unai Emery to take.
Zelalem’s failure to make it Arsenal should serve as a warning to Arsenal’s current crop of promising youngsters. The current generation of players to come through at Hale End have fans bursting with excitement, with talents like Reiss Nelson, Emile Smith-Rowe, Eddie Nketiah and Joe Willock all seen as potential Arsenal first-teamers in the future.
Smith-Rowe and Willock, in particular, have already managed what Zelalem couldn’t do at the club, make an impact on the first time, with the duo scoring three goals each for Arsenal this season,
Emery has managed the youngsters this season well, giving them minutes in the cup competitions whilst ensuring they are given regular playing time in the youth cup and league. This grounding of academy products will mature these players in the long term, teaching them that in order to make it you need to earn it.
Zelalem’s fall as the “the next Cesc Fabregas” to a player stranded in the reserves might be a blessing in disguise for the future of Arsenal as not only has it taught the coaches how to approach a potential world-class talent in the academy, but it a lesson to the current players that trying to aim for too much too young doesn’t always work out.
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