Arsene Wenger said in the summer that Gedion Zelalem will not be ready to feature for the Arsenal first-team for at least six months.
That statement raised eyebrows in some quarters, with fears arising that the 17 year old was struggling to fulfil his vast potential. However, with hindsight, Arsenal’s decision to allow Zelalem to develop in the youth teams, rather than rushing him into first-team action, has been an informed one.
When Zelalem made his debut for the Arsenal first-team against Coventry City in the FA Cup last season, his appearance was expected to be the first of many, with some even suggesting that he would feature in the Premier League before the end of the campaign. That didn’t materialise and Zelalem has had to be mightily patient for his opportunity, having not even made the bench for the recent Capital One Cup tie with Southampton.
What he has been doing in the interim, however, hasn’t gone unnoticed at London Colney. Having first played in the U21 team as a schoolboy, Zelalem now possesses considerable experience of second-string football, and, at last, is beginning to develop the sort of consistency and ability to influence matches that was so lacking from his game last season.
Whereas previously Zelalem could go an entire U21 game without making a notable contribution, he is now, gradually, beginning to become more tactically aware to add to his renowned technical gifts. He scored his first goal for the club with a superb strike for the U19s against Galatasaray in the UEFA Youth League and is starting to play killer passes with the regularity that he has done so when afforded an opportunity in first-team friendlies.
Having previously appeared too afraid to go into challenges, Zelalem is now prepared to fight for the ball. His talent has always been obvious, but his all-round game is now improving immensely. He still needs to develop physically, which is perhaps why he hasn’t featured in the Premier League yet, but, slowly but surely, he is getting towards the stage where he’ll be ready to represent the first-team regularly.
He hasn’t quite developed as quickly as Cesc Fabregas, who slotted into Premier League action as a 17 year old, or Jack Wilshere, who was dominating Carling Cup games in the first year of his scholarship, but Zelalem’s time will come eventually.