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Reiss Nelson at Arsenal: sell or reintegrate

Does the winger have a future in North London or is it time to move on?

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AS Roma v Feyenoord - UEFA Europa Conference League Final 2021/22 Photo by Matteo Ciambelli/vi/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Arsenal have a decision to make on Reiss Nelson this summer. The Hale End product is entering the final year of his contract, which was extended by a year just last summer to enable his loan and prevent him from leaving on a free. Mikel Arteta now has to decide whether to move him on or to reintegrate him into the rotation in North London.

Nelson has spent two of the last four seasons on loan: Hoffenheim in 2018-19 and Feyenoord this season. He made 22 appearances in all competitions for Arsenal in 2019-20 and was a forgotten man during the 2020-21 season, making just 9 total appearances.

For what it’s worth, Mikel Arteta took the blame for Nelson’s lack of playing time.

He’s a boy who tries really hard, he trains every day, he wants to do extra all the time. It’s very difficult at the moment with the players we have to be able to fit him in. I feel sorry that we don’t have other competitions to use him in, because he deserves more. He doesn’t play more and that’s my fault.

Nelson had a successful season at Feyenoord, reaching the Europa Conference League final and helping the Eredivisie side secure a spot in the Europa League next season. He tallied 4 goals and added 8 assists in 31 appearances and just under 1600 minutes in all comps. He played on both wings for Arne Slot but has recently played almost exclusively on the right side, often establishing Feyenoord’s width so that the right fullback, right-sided central midfielder, and attacker can exploit the channel inside him.

With Nicolas Pépé pushing for a move away from North London this summer, there may be an open spot on the depth chart for Nelson. Bukayo Saka played all 38 matches in the Premier League this season, and it seemed to me that he was wearing down and perhaps carrying a slight injury towards the end of the year. Add to that European competition, in which Saka will absolutely be used should Arsenal reach the latter stages (as we hope and expect they will), and there are too many matches for Saka to cover alone. Is Reiss Nelson good enough to claim that spot?

I don’t know, maybe. He’s probably talented enough to play the Europa league group stage matches and to add in a few spot starts in the Premier League against lesser teams. It might be worth keeping him around for that reason alone and spending the money the club would have spent on a backup for Saka on another, more pressing need. That said, there are valid concerns about whether Nelson is up to the level that Arsenal aspire to. He simply might not have enough quality.

Nelson’s expiring contract also makes things a bit more tricky because you don’t love losing a player for free, but at the same time, it might not be worth extending him. It could be one of those situations where the value of keeping him for a season then letting him walk is worth more than whatever small transfer fee you’d get for him this summer.

I think it would be smart for Arsenal to give Nelson a shot. It seems as if he’s matured significantly since we last saw him in North London. He recently admitted in an interview with The Athletic that when he was a few years younger, he wasn’t ready to be a full professional. He wasn’t focused enough on training, taking care of himself and his body, and doing the little things to set himself up for success. Now, he says, he has a better understanding of what he needs to do to stay on the pitch and be at his best and credits his return to consistent fitness and increasing playing time at Feyenoord on that growth and maturation.

There’s a funny quote in that Athletic piece about ice baths that illustrates Nelson’s growth.

I still hate ice baths but it’s one of the things that you’ve just got to do. The benefit from it is amazing. I did ice baths today. I literally hate it, but I had to just jump in, stay for a few minutes and leave.

Some players take longer to grow up and “get” what being a professional footballer requires. It seems like Reiss Nelson is one of those guys. He’s shown flashes of desirable attacking qualities, especially when it comes to his willingness to dribble at defenders and challenge them for pace. But he’s struggled with other facets of his game and, at least at Arsenal, hadn’t shown anything near the consistency required to have a regular role.

It won’t cost Arsenal much (anything) to keep him at the club for another season to see how much he has developed. It feels like another, “show me” one-year extension with some assurances of playing time in the Europa League for Nelson would be a smart move for Arsenal. Whether he would be open to “proving it” on another short-term deal is another question. He may want a long-term deal and push for a move. Or Mikel Arteta might have already decided to move on from him.

It’s a tough situation to gauge, but it’s another one of the myriad questions Arsenal have to answer this summer as they continue to rebuild the roster.