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.