Gedion Zelalem’s loan to Rangers came as something of a surprise when it was announced in summer. Two views immediately emerged on the move – on one hand, he’d be able to express himself at will, and the rigors of lower-league Scottish football would toughen him up. On the other, he’d be playing at a level far beneath him and risk being kicked out of games. Would scoring a hat trick against Dumbarton help him prepare for facing Barcelona?
In the end, neither view has turned out to be accurate. After an impressive start, showing plenty of nice touches and pieces of skill, it’s surprisingly been Zelalem’s creativity that’s been lacking. Winning the ball back hasn’t been a problem for him; being able to pass with confidence, find space in between the lines, drive the team forward and score goals are qualities that have not come as easily as the young American has struggled to nail down his place in the team.
The levels of ability in the league are a mixed bag, comprising teams far better than the division in Rangers and Hibs, solid professional outfits (one of which, Falkirk, has largely kept pace with the big two), total basket cases like Livingston and part-time happy-to-be-there jobbers like Alloa. Yet Rangers are a good team with fierce competition among a small squad – Nathan Oduwa, who impressed at first, found himself having to return to Tottenham after being unable to even get on the bench as the season wore on.
It’s too simplistic, therefore, to say the standard is terrible and worry about Zelalem if he’s incapable of impressing at that level. The notion that talented youngsters from Spurs and Arsenal would embarrass defenders with ease has not come to pass. And yet this is still a league where Rangers’ fullbacks have managed to rack up 14 goals between the two of them, and Zelalem is one of only three outfield players who have started a game for Rangers this season not to have scored a goal (the other two are center backs.)
— Robert Boyle (@RFC_Rab) January 27, 2016
Simply put, for creativity and attacking drive, Zelalem has fallen a long way short of his teammates Jason Holt (a young Scottish midfielder who moved on a free transfer from Hearts) and Barrie McKay (a youngster who looked certain to be released at the start of the season.) Both are talented players enjoying excellent seasons, and both have a couple of years on Zelalem. But if he’s expected to be a top talent for Arsenal in the future, it’s not the sort of company he should be lagging so far behind.
It’s possible the problem could be mental. Rangers’ last game against Greenock Morton saw Holt injured, with Zelalem given the chance to be the main creative outlet for the team and needing to put in a good performance. Instead, he found himself substituted as Rangers struggled to play with any fluidity. McKay took up his position in the center instead and soon scored an excellent second goal — the type that Zelalem has so badly struggled to replicate — as the team improved markedly. It didn’t feel like a coincidence that one of his poorest showings came when he was needed the most.
Perhaps even more worrying is the caliber of players Zelalem has recently began having to compete with. Rangers’ current best team would likely have journeymen like Dean Shiels or Nicky Law starting ahead of him. Jordan Thompson, a youngster of the same age released by Manchester United, has also impressed in brief cameos. Another midfield signing, or McKay moving into the center more regularly — both very likely in the near future — could see him struggle to get into the team at all.
This is a surprise for what was considered to be a major coup for Rangers to land the player at the start of the season. It should be perfect, too – a big part of Oduwa’s failure at Rangers was his reliance on pace, which is far less effective when half the teams you come up against are parked in their own area and would consider a 1-0 loss a fine result. Zelalem should be the perfect player for picking apart teams who are technically limited but hard-working, determined and defensive. Instead, he’s been far too safe and cautious with his distribution, unable to move the ball between the lines or pick out the decisive pass to unlock the opposition’s backline.
It has also been a disappointment that manager Mark Warburton, for whatever reason, has not been able to get the best out of him. Players who could hardly trap a ball during Rangers’ previous season when the team were horrendous are now playing some of the best football of their careers, but Zelalem still seems trapped in a funk (although his recent comments suggest he’s not unhappy on a personal level.)
Perhaps Zelalem (and Arsenal and US men’s national team fans) can take some solace from the example of McKay, the player who has outshone him so much so far this season. Scorer of Rangers’ first goal since being moved to the fourth tier and tipped for big things, he never progressed and ended up loaned out, where he had a pretty shocking time. He then returned to Ibrox with a renewed vigor to succeed and established himself as the team’s most gifted player. Similarly, Zelalem might still learn a lot, both about his limitations that must be overcome and about just how big an opportunity he has at Arsenal. The loan might still end up being a great thing for his career, even if it might not be in the way that anybody expected.
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