If you have read my Twitter feed or this site in the past week or two, you will know that I am not bullish on Gedion Zelalem's loan move to Rangers. Now that the move is official, I have had time to reflect on my thoughts and, yeah, they are still largely negative. While it is more than a little ridiculous to write off an 18-year-old, and while obviously the club has said nothing publicly, there are good circumstantial reasons to wonder whether Arsenal are somewhat disappointed in the American's development.
The typical formula at Arsenal for developing young talent is pretty set in stone. Unless you're first-team ready when you join Arsenal (or, if you are a non-EU, non-"special talent" player), you spend a few years developing at the club with the youth teams. At that point, Arsene Wenger and the coaching staff have a pretty good idea if you have a chance to make it or not. If you're one of those they see on the cusp of the first team, you probably get sent on loan to a low-level Premier League side or a Championship side to get regular, competitive playing time. Even players they do not think will make it onto the first team regularly get Championship level loans!
At this point, there's not much a prospect can do to change the preseason opinion that coaching staff had about them for the better - the player can really only screw things up. The list of prospects who played really well in the Championship and still did not make it at Arsenal is pretty dang long, especially recently with Benik Afobe, Henri Lansbury, and Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, among others, performing well at their loan clubs.
But enough about the Championship, what about players who get loaned to the League One level or its equivalent in other countries - say, Scotland? I did a good bit of digging around in recent Arsenal loanee history, and could not find a single Arsenal outfield prospect that was loaned out to a League One team who subsequently made it into Arsenal's first team. Here's the list I compiled:
That seems like a bad sign.
Coupled with Zelalem's omission from the Emirates Cup squad for the first time since his arrival in North London (in favor of Chuba Akpom, Alex Iwobi, and JEFF) and his removal from the first-team prior to his loan move, there appears to be a growing mountain of evidence that the club is, at the very least, trying to pull out all the stops to kick start a revival in Zelalem's Arsenal career.
This is not to say I'm giving young Gedion no chance, though! There are some positive signs that might show the breaking of this troubling trend.
First, recent comments from Wenger seem to indicate he is not pleased with the current set-up in England for developing youngsters. In this interview, Arsene puts the Barclays U-21 Premier League, a recent successor to the Barclays Premier Reserve League, on blast stating that its lack of true competition stifles the development of kids in between the ages of 18 and 20.
While the Premier Reserve League was not exactly the height of competition, it did not have quite as many restrictive rules on who can play, which meant youngsters did have a bit more consistent adult competition. Even this slight shift seems to have perturbed the boss, and this summer's loan activity seems to indicate he does not value U-21 play, as it is currently set up, as a way to develop talent. If that is truly the case, perhaps Zelalem's loan (and Crowley's, for that matter) are not as distressing as they might have been in previous years.
Lastly, it does not appear that Zelalem was forced to join Rangers due to a lack of options. After the initial news of a reported loan move to Rangers broke, it seemed as those some Championship sides tried to enter the fray for Zelalem. At least one of the Championship clubs linked to Zelalem poured cold water on their link to the American, but it does appear the report had some veracity to it. If Arsenal gave him that level of free will with regards to his loan choice, the level he is playing at may not be indicative of how the club feels about his prospects, as it had generally signified in the past.
Just because something has not happened for a while, if ever, certainly does not preclude it from happening in the future. It is worth pointing out, though, that the circumstantial evidence that Arsenal are beginning to worry about Zelalem's chances of making it to Arsenal's first team continues to grow.