Reiss Nelson interview: England starlet on Germany, Jadon Sancho and life away from Arsenal

Exclusive: With five goals in six Bundesliga games since joining Hoffenheim back in August, the 18-year-old is the latest Englishman thriving away from home

Archie Rhind-Tutt
Monday 05 November 2018 13:20 GMT
Arsenal 2018/19 Premier League profile

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


As Reiss Nelson walked down the tunnel at the BayArena after Hoffenheim’s 4-1 win in Leverkusen, it wasn’t difficult to make out what one of his coaches was saying to him.

“Reiss ‘The Beast’ Nelson! Reiss ‘The Beast’ Nelson!” boomed Pellegrino Matarazzo, an assistant to Hoffenheim coach Julian Nagelsmann. Nelson admitted to The Independent soon after he’d not called him that before but if he keeps up his recent form, it will surely not be the last time he hears it.

He, along with Jadon Sancho, are very much flying the flag for English talent in the Bundesliga, which has also been a first testing ground for the likes of Ryan Kent, Ademola Lookman and Reece Oxford in recent seasons.

The impact that Nelson and Sancho have made so far exceeds their predecessors. Kicker magazine on Monday morning has both of them in the top six players so far in the Bundesliga season.

Nelson signed a new contract with Arsenal before joining Hoffenheim
Nelson signed a new contract with Arsenal before joining Hoffenheim (Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

Nelson’s goal on Saturday edges him one ahead of Sancho’s tally of four in the scoring charts, not that the 18-year-old will be trolling the Borussia Dortmund prodigy.

“That’s my best friend! It’s not a competition. It’s not about him scoring, me scoring. I want to play, he wants to play and hopefully we can play together some day.”

If the two were to have a competition for who’s scored the best goal so far, then Nelson’s effort on Saturday would lead the way though. Twenty minutes into the game, team-mate Vincenzo Grifo laid a corner short to the England Under-21 international. Nelson took one touch towards the edge of the area before thumping the ball into the top corner.

“I spoke to the coach [Julian Nagelsmann] before the game and he said they sleep on corners. So I thought it was a great opportunity for me to go short. I saw the space and no one attacked me. I thought: ‘I’m gonna go forward and have a shot here.

“It’s just one of those ones which you hit and you hope for it to go in. Luckily it went into the top corner.”

The force he hit it with caused Nelson to fall over but he picked himself up quickly enough to run towards the corner flag, cupping his ear to the home crowd. “It’s one of those celebrations that I’ve always wanted to do, seeing the players on TV doing it,” says the 18-year-old forward.

Nelson is impressing in Germany
Nelson is impressing in Germany (AFP/Getty Images)

Unsurprisingly, the Leverkusen fans were unamused. As Nelson reached the corner flag fulfilling a boyhood dream, a disgruntled local decided to try and give the Arsenal loanee something else to remember the occasion by, lobbing a beer at Nelson which landed at his feet.

“I’ll take that for the goal, I don’t mind that,” beams Nelson, who — with five goals in six Bundesliga games since joining Hoffenheim on deadline day in August — may justifiably be celebrating with something a little stronger.

Not that Nelson is one for the bright lights that his newly elevated status could bring. He moved in 15 miles up the road from the training ground with his mum, sister and brother to Heidelberg, a picture-postcard city renowned for its historic university. “It’s very quiet and not as lively as London," Nelson notes.

It's not the only difference he's experienced since swapping curries for currywurst. “It’s just that I’m getting an opportunity to play and that’s the main thing. Once you’re a young player and you’re getting an opportunity to play, I think if you’re good enough, it just gives you the confidence to go on.”

Nelson should have no shortage of self-belief, and averaging a Bundesliga goal every 63 minutes, those levels will only continue growing. Not that Nagelsmann will allow his young charge's head to swell with it.

Nelson is averaging a Bundesliga goal every 63 minutes
Nelson is averaging a Bundesliga goal every 63 minutes (AFP/Getty Images)

“I am not entirely happy with his performance,” the Hoffenheim boss noted after the Leverkusen game. He demands a lot from his side and Nelson is no exception, as could be seen by the four times that he swapped wings on Saturday afternoon. In previous weeks, however, the 31-year-old has been effusive in his praise of his teenage forward, blending carrot and stick to tease out Nelson's best.

“He has great potential to develop. That’s why we loaned him in the first place. He’s an incredible player in one-on-one situations,” as Nagelsmann said in October. A fortnight before, with Hoffenheim 1-0 down at Nuremberg, he had seen Nelson score twice to turn the game around. Following that, the Englishman dribbled past three Stuttgart players to help force the opening goal in their 4-0 win the next week, though it did not spare Nelson being publicly outed for having "a very bad game" by his boss against Hannover last month.

“It’s about growing in a healthy fashion for young players,” said Nagelsmann, who is barely older than the senior figures in his squad. “It’s like being a musician. One good song can put bread on the table for a few weeks but it’s not about just being a one-hit wonder. It’s about being stable for a long time, in the best case doing that over the course of 15 years.

Nagelsmann is a big fan of the Englishman
Nagelsmann is a big fan of the Englishman (Bongarts/Getty Images)

“If you want to be a great player, like to name a few examples, Cristiano Ronaldo, Arjen Robben or Lionel Messi, being able to perform at the top for over a decade. So he’s got to work hard now.”

Nelson’s ambitions will be helped by working with Nagelsmann who has proved himself as the best up-and-coming coach, if not the best coach in Germany over the past few years. For a start, Hoffenheim have finished in the top four twice in his two full seasons in charge, despite others boasting bigger budgets.

Most encouragingly for Nelson is how Nagelsmann improves players. One-time Arsenal starlet Serge Gnabry’s successful loan spell from Bayern Munich last season is proof of that, while Niklas Süle showed his best for the club under the youthful Hoffenheim boss before going to Bayern last summer.

The best current example of a work in progress is 25-year-old left-back Nico Schulz. He arrived in the summer of 2017 having been second-choice at fellow Bundesliga side Borussia Mönchengladbach, his potential unrealised. In the space of a year, Nagelsmann has transformed him into the leading German player in his position, with Schulz unfortunate not to go to the World Cup. His recent start for Germany against France in the Nations League will not be his last. Schulz is a big reason why no team has created more chances than Hoffenheim in the Bundesliga this season. Nelson playing on the same flank as him can only be mutually beneficial.

Nelson is settling down to life in the Bundesliga
Nelson is settling down to life in the Bundesliga (EPA)

Should Nelson require a sympathetic ear, team-mate Havard Nordtveit knows exactly what it’s like to be in his shoes. When he was 19, Nordtveit, was thrown in at the Bundesliga's deep end when Arsenal allowed to join Nuremberg on loan

“He needed some time [in Hoffenheim] to get used to the tactics, the language,” says the Norway international.

“It’s quite hard when you’re an English boy, you come to Germany. Trying to understand everything and especially here, under Julian Nagelsmann, he has a philosophy in football that’s really advanced and it takes time for an offensive player. It’s not just about scoring goals. It’s about how to defend, how to pressure the opponents. He’s done really well.

“He’s got the talent and the most important thing is he’s a down-to-earth guy. He’s hard working every day. He’s not getting disappointed if he’s not playing or starting but finally when he gets the chance, he scores wonderful goals like here today and also against Nuremberg away.”

Nelson knows even after his weekend heroics, his place in the team isn’t guaranteed with Nagelsmann continually looking for that follow-up hit. “The main thing for me is getting in the starting eleven and making an impact whenever I can come on.”

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