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Kids These Days: Gedion Zelalem

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Welcome to part two of TSF's (irregularly occurring) series Kids These Days, where we'll have fun taking a look at an Arsenal youth prospect, while also seriously analyzing their game and their prospects for making into the first team long term.

This edition's prospect is a youngster you've probably never heard about: Gedion Zelalem. He's flown under the radar quite a bit, so let's dive in and see if we can't learn a little bit more about this anonymous prospect.

Bio Bullets

  • Zelalem is 17 years young, though he turns 18 at the end of January. Beers are on him, because he already makes more than you.
  • When he came on in the FA Cup tie versus Coventry City last season, he became the first player to play for Arsenal who was born after Arsene Wenger took over at the club.
  • He is German based on the principle of jus soli. He is Ethiopian based on the principle of jus sanguinis. Most importantly, he's a United States citizen because government bureaucrats did their job right, for once.
  • Pronounces his name "Ze-LAH-lem", according to this video. Also important from that video, he gets pumped up to "Lose Yourself" by Eminem, much like I did when I was 17.
  • His nickname is "Geds." I'm never going to call him that.
  • Wikipedia says he's 5'11. That seems about right!
  • He's been at Arsenal since the summer of 2012, but didn't officially join until he was 16. The FA has some weird rules, man.
  • He's been in the Arsenal first-team squad longer than Alexis Sanchez, technically!
Strengths & Weaknesses

Let me start off with a disclaimer: Gedion Zelalem is not guaranteed to be a first-teamer at Arsenal (or savior of the USMNT either, for that matter). He's 17 years old, has no first-team starts at a senior level of any league, and is just a prospect.

It's fair to say, especially for someone who joined Arsenal as "the next [THAT ONE SPANISH MIDFIELDER]", that Zelalem's development has been slower than most hoped and maybe even expected. Those of us who woke up at ungodly hours in July and August 2013 to catch a glimpse of him dissecting Asian teams (and the lazy folks who just watched the highlights at a reasonable hour) just knew this kid would break through soon. However, here we are, a year and a half after his official inclusion in the first-team squad and he's yet to make an impact for Arsenal other than being the answer to a pub trivia question.

I know I am late to the Zelalem dump-rush of stories that occurred after he actually became a US citizen, but I wanted to take the time to go back and watch all of his (streamed) matches from this season. I wanted to stay clear of the hype or reactionary counterhype and really analyze his performances, to see if flashier prospects like Daniel Crowley and Ainsley Maitland-Niles had really passed him up in the Arsenal youth set-up or if he had been a disappointment thus far in his development.

My conclusion after these rewatches, deep soul-searching and many hours of meditation is: fret not, Zelalem is still a really exciting prospect.

He's primarily played in two positions this season. For the U21 side, he plays in the no. 10 role. For the U19 side, which competes in the UEFA Youth League, he has been paired in a double pivot with Ainsley Maitland-Niles. He typically is more advanced that Maitland-Niles, playing the Ramsey/box-to-box role in a 4-2-3-1.

His strengths are his passing ability, his vision, and his intelligence. He can make every pass. Short, long, toe poke, back heel, outside of his boot, inside of his boot, and probably the top and bottom of his boot too. He had not shown much of a long ball in his televised appearances last year, but he has displayed the ability to switch play occasionally this season. Typically, that is not part of his game. Much like Arteta or Özil, he plays shorter, smarter passes rather than frequent Hollywood balls, an issue many of our young midfield prospects, past and present, succumb to. Also, one of my favorite sub-traits of Zelalem's passing ability is that he plays passes that are on-time and put players in a position to be immediately proactive as opposed to consistently playing passes askew which effectively lead to a reset.

I have given Zelalem's vision effusive praise in the past so I will not delve too deep into it here. Suffice it to say he was born with a gift; one that most footballers simply do not have.

His intelligence shines through his ability to retain possession for his team and his movement when his team has the ball. I mentioned the former earlier, but the latter was impressive, particularly in the Aston Villa U21 match. He makes himself available for passes, even if that availability is not utilized by his teammates. He does not move from a central to wide position with as much frequency as Özil or Cazorla, but on occasion he does. He tends to stay central and dictate play from that position on the field. While he may not have as many assists as one might hope for, he is regularly involved in the build-up of goal-scoring moves by keeping the ball moving and putting his teammates in a position to create chances.

He still needs to improve his tackling ability and his defensive positioning, as well as needing to continue growing physically. The latter seems the easiest to improve on, but it will take time. I have no doubt he will fill out his currently scrawny frame, but if Arsenal want him to play a deeper midfield role, he will need to bulk up. (USMNT aside: He would get slaughtered by rugby-esque CONCACAF sides. It probably would not be wise to blood him in the Gold Cup this year.)

The facet of Zelalem's game that stood out to me most while rewatching his matches is his tackling ability. It is quite bad. While watching the home Anderlecht tie, I tried to tally his tackles, but stopped counting the gore after he successfully made one tackle on six attempts. His form is often conservative, lazy, and non-committal. He rarely gets badly burned, but it also does not exactly help the side break up attacking play.

His defensive positioning is something that will probably require first-team football to develop. U19 and U21 matches are too disorganized to really develop that trait. He is always moving and individually presses well. He seems to possess the capability to improve greatly in this area, especially since he sees the angles so well in his movement when his side has the ball.

The main reason Zelalem has seemingly failed to shine for our youth teams is that all of the little things he does excellently do not show up on the scoreline or highlight reel. He is not a goal-scorer. He rarely takes on defenders with fancy dribbling skills. Because he has just been solid, rather than taking these games by the scruff of their neck, he has disappointed some.

This could, as he matures, create a perception problem for him. His most obvious comparison is Özil, a brilliant player whose reputation among the masses does not accurately reflect his performances. Both are languid playmakers that value possession in dangerous areas. Both are not as direct as most would like but can pick out a final ball when the opportunity presents itself. They are not players that will regularly dominate a match through sheer force of will, but if you surround them with great talent and play them in their best position, they make that talent even better.

Unfortunately for players in this mold (and I would include Arteta in this thought too), their subtle contributions go unnoticed until they are not in the team. Even then, it takes a concerted effort to revitalize their image (or just Flamini and Coquelin playing like garbage). This makes it more likely that Zelalem will break through into the first-team at Arsenal, but less likely that he will ever become a widely appreciated club hero.

Character Judgment Through Social Media

I think we all know he does not have a Twitter account. Personally, I think he's an awful person for not having one and sparing us all (temporary) heartbreak via impersonation.

First Team Chances

His first-team chances depend on where Arsene sees him playing long-term. If he sees him as a no. 10, he is not far off at all. Next year, he should get chances to prove himself in the League Cup (and possibly more) depending on his play in those opportunities.

If Arsene sees him occupying a deeper role long-term, either as a box-to-box midfielder or a deep-lying playmaker, he could really use a loan spell abroad to develop those talents. That latter role is certainly an appealing thought, particularly since Özil blocks his path to the no. 10 spot for Arsenal, but the club cannot afford to suffer his growing pains learning that position. I am not sure a Premier League club would take him on for that role either, and the style of play in the Championship likely is not going to foster growth in that position. Germany makes sense due the language, though first-team football in any top league would be very beneficial.

Regardless of what position Arsenal project him in, they undoubtedly hold Zelalem in high regard. Using a highly scientific scale of 2015 Oscar Best Picture hopefuls from LEFT BEHIND to BIRDMAN, Zelalem comes in at BOYHOOD. The kid is as close as it gets to being a lock at breaking through into the first-team.