There was once a time in which Gedion Zelalem was labeled as America’s next big soccer star. After all, the German-born midfielder transferred from a Maryland area high school varsity team to a major European club at the age of just 16. Within his first year at Arsenal, Zelalem quickly made his way from the U16 team to the U21s. In fact, he was even named in Arsenal’s first team squad for their preseason tour of Asia during the summer of 2013.
Just seven months after making the move to England, and still just 16, Zelalem was included in the club’s squad for their Premier League fixture with Fulham in August of 2013. While the youngster did not feature in the match at Craven Cottage, he would have become the youngest player to ever play for the club if he had. Nearly five years after that match in west London, Zelalem has still yet to feature in a Premier League game for Arsenal.
Talent has never really been an issue for Zelalem. Former Arsenal star Jack Wilshere was full of praise of the young American in 2014. “It won’t be long before he is ready [for the Arsenal senior team],” Wilshere said of Zelalem.
“He sees passes that not a lot of players can, and he’s so comfortable on the ball. Even in training, he’s a nightmare to play against. He keeps the ball away from you and shields it. He’s not very big but he’s strong. He drifts in and out of players. Technically, he’s right up there. He can use his left and right and he sees so many passes.”
Former Gunners manager Arsene Wenger also tipped Zelalem to enjoy a successful playing career. “He might be a bit longer to mature because he is a little bit behind on the body structure,” claimed Wenger. ”But I’m sure he will be a great player who matures maybe a bit slowly physically. But overall, I’m convinced that he’ll have a great career.”
Following the rapid rise through the ranks during his first season at the club, Zelalem remained with the Arsenal reserves for the majority of the 2014/15 campaign. His one first team appearance came during a Champions League victory against Galatasaray in December of 2014.
The following season, Zelalem went out on loan at Scottish club Rangers. In his first match with the team, the midfielder recorded two assists in a second round Scottish League Cup victory against Airdrieonians. Zelalem went on to have a solid season at Rangers, and even helped the prestigious club receive promotion back into the Scottish Premiership. The 2015/16 campaign remains the last productive year of Zelalem’s young career.
While hopes were high at Arsenal, Wenger elected to send Zelalem back out on loan in January of 2017. The move to VVV Venlo came after the 20-year-old midfielder agreed a new contract extension with Arsenal prior to the loan deal. Though the season with Rangers was productive, the three months with the Dutch side was the complete opposite. Zelalem managed just one start in the league and a grand total of 182 minutes on the pitch with the club.
To make matters worse, Zelalem then tore his ACL while on duty with the USA U20s in May of 2017. The significant injury has kept the midfielder out for over a year now, thanks in most part to a medical setback in January. Because of this operation, Zelalem has spent just 1,172 total minutes on the pitch over the last two calendar years. That is basically the equivalent of 13 full matches.
Now 21, Zelalem is working hard to get his fitness back once again and has been seen this summer sprinting and working out at Arsenal’s training facility. He has also appeared to put on some additional muscle. With a year remaining on his current contract, the midfielder has a big season ahead of himself. Fitness will certainly be the most important aspect of his 2018/19 campaign, but it will be interesting to see what new manager Unai Emery has in store for the youngster.
Another loan move this summer appears unlikely. A season with the U23s, however, seems to be the most logical answer at this point. Zelalem can slowly work his way back to full health after the horrific injury at the club’s world-class facilities, while also prove to the Arsenal staff that he can still make an impact with the club in the future.