After over a year of waiting, the moment finally arrived for Gedion Zelalem last night, with the much-vaunted youngster making his competitive debut during Arsenal’s 4-0 victory over Coventry City in the FA Cup.
Following an agonising wait for international clearance enabling him to play in England and several subsequent injury set-backs, Zelalem’s chance finally arrived, with the midfielder, who turns 17 tomorrow, replacing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for the final 19 minutes of the victory over the Sky Bet League One side.
The game was effectively won by the time he entered the field, but Zelalem still made something of an impact, with the Germany U17 international retaining possession well and, according to manager Arsene Wenger, demonstrating “personality” in his passing.
It was a massive moment for Zelalem, but it must also have been something of a relief, too, with his senior debut coming much later than had initially been expected. After catching the eye during the club’s pre-season tour of Asia, Zelalem made the bench for the Premier League fixtures against Fulham and Tottenham Hotspur in August, but yesterday marked his return to the first-team set-up.
In the interim, Zelalem has featured for Arsenal at various youth levels, making ten appearances in total this season spread across five different competitions to add to the four outings he made for the U21s whilst he was a schoolboy.
Already part of the first-team squad and with the announcement of his maiden professional contract a matter of days away, things are going rather well for Zelalem at present, but it would be rather churlish to expect him to become a regular presence in the senior squad over the coming weeks, barring a catalogue of injuries.
Wenger will surely provide Zelalem with as many opportunities to impress as possible when he sees fit, but, for now, it will be exceptionally difficult for the youngster to get into Arsenal’s Premier League side, with the likes of Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil and Tomas Rosicky ahead of him.
The likelihood is that Zelalem will continue to train with the first-team and may be called upon on some occasions, perhaps in the next round of the FA Cup depending on the opposition, but he may have to wait until next season before featuring regularly for the first-team. Indeed, Cesc Fabregas made just three League Cup appearances during his first campaign at the club.
Zelalem is expected to marry his first-team commitments with regular appearances for the youth sides, and he could well feature when the second-string take on Chelsea in the U21 Premier League Cup on Monday evening.
Yesterday saw Zelalem represent the first-team after an agonising wait. He may have to remain patient for a little while yet before he samples that feeling on a regular basis.