Gedion Zelalem, who made history by becoming the first player born after Arsene Wenger joined Arsenal to play for the club when he made his debut against Coventry City in the FA Cup in January and signed his first professional deal with the club today, is one of the brightest young stars in the Gunners’ academy.
Born in Berlin to Ethiopian parents, Zelalem was spotted while playing for American junior side Olney Rovers after his family moved to the United States. Arsenal’s chief North American scout Daniel Karbassiyoon, who played for the club from 2003-05, watched him at the Dallas Cup, a highly competitive international tournament for youth teams, and pointed him out to Arsenal’s coaches.
The midfielder, then just 14, was invited for a trial at Arsenal, and so impressed Arsene Wenger that not only did he secure a place at the academy when he turned 16, but also the parting gift of an Arsenal jersey emblazoned with his name and the number 4, presented to him by the manager.
Zelalem has drawn comparisons with one of the most illustrious wearers of that Arsenal No 4 shirt – Cesc Fabregas – for his style of play. A deep lying central midfielder with superb technique, Zelalem has earned plaudits for his range of passing and precocious ability to read the game.
Mike Williams, his high-school coach, told the Washington Post that Zelalem is “able to set the tempo like no other”. His coach at Olney Rovers, Matt Pilkington concurred: “The balance, the vision, the ideas – you don’t see that often at Gedion’s age.”
After rejoining Arsenal last year, Zelalem wasted no time in justifying the hype. He starred for the under-21 team (despite being five years younger than most of his fellow players), before a series of assured performances on the club’s Asia Tour had seasoned players purring over his ability.
“So many of the young players impress me but if I had to choose one it would be Gedion,” said Carl Jenkinson. “He is very gifted on the ball, he is a midfielder that it is difficult to get the ball off, he has great balance and good feet and has great vision.” Jack Wilshere enthused: “He played a few passes through that I don’t know how he saw them to be honest.”
At 16, Zelalem is clearly far from the finished article. He needs to develop his slight physique to compete physically in the centre of the park; in addition, German newspaper the Rheinische Post reports that he still “often makes the wrong decisions…and uses only his right foot for almost every touch”.
But even that newspaper concedes that Zelalem’s creativity and vision are so outstanding that “one can scarcely believe he’s only 16 years old”.
All the signs suggest that Zelalem has the maturity to cope with his FA Cup baptism of fire.