Seventeen-year-old attacker Gedio Zelalem livened up an otherwise dull friendly between Arsenal and the New York Red Bulls, giving ASN's Blake Thomsen a chance to consider his international future.
THE NEW YORK RED BULLS
July 28, 2014
SHARE THIS STORY
met Arsenal on Saturday in a drab affair that sufficiently bored those at ASN headquarters to the point where praising Alexi Lalas seemed more logical than commending anyone on the field.
Regardless of the poor quality of play—especially from the visitors—there are still some big takeaways from the action, and all of them revolve around a certain 17-year-old Ethiopian-German-American. Here are my three thoughts:
GEDION ZELALEM IS NOT READY TO HELP THE U.S. (OR ARSENAL)
While many hoped Zelalem would rise to the occasion on his stateside homecoming and put in a Man of the Match performance, it never really materialized. One 45-minute half is, of course, a small sample size. But for now it’s not terribly hard to see what is keeping Zelalem out of the current Arsenal first-team picture.
At just 17, Zelalem’s frame is extremely thin, which enables defenders to push him off the ball with ease. One play involving Costa Rican international Roy Miller—the type of opponent Zelalem would face were he thrown into the Hex right now—was a particularly glaring example of Zelalem’s lack of strength. In what looked like a genuine 50-50 ball between the two players, Zelalem ended up thrust out of the way without ever getting anywhere near the ball. Such lack of strength is simply unacceptable for a midfielder at the national team or Premier League level.
Further, and this is admittedly hyper-critical, Zelalem did very poorly with a presentable one-on-one dribbling chance on the right wing. A more developed player likely would have tried to at least take on the Red Bulls defender, but Zelalem slowed up and played a non-threatening back pass instead of forcing the issue. Again, this is a harsh criticism, and maybe given the same chance a second time Zelalem would have skinned the defender and gone on to score. But for a player of his talent, it would have been nice to see him take a more decisive course of action.
IN 12-36 MONTHS, GEDION ZELALEM COULD BE READY TO HELP
Let the previous section stand as a few criticisms amid a sea of praise. While it only came in flashes, it was still easy to see how the hype surrounding Zelalem originated. His standout attribute was simply his natural comfort on the ball, which meant he did not look out of place in the Arsenal midfield next to Santi Cazorla, Aaron Ramsey, or Jack Wilshere. Zelalem never embarked on any particularly impressive runs, but the way he glided with the ball—like only superstars do—stood out. And his passing percentage must have been very high, as he found teammates again and again, even when under extreme pressure.
We also saw a flash of Zelalem’s celebrated vision and creativity on his brilliant wall pass to Wilshere late in the first half.
Receiving the ball on the turn in heavy traffic in the box, Zelalem picked out the type of return pass to Wilshere that is generally reserved for the world’s best No. 10s. Only a superb Luis Robles save on Wilshere’s shot denied Zelalem a moment to remember.
BUT WHICH COUNTRY WILL HE HELP?
The gathered post-match reporters did a good job of putting Zelalem on the spot with some tough questions about his future national team. He answered with impressive poise, though, not giving anything away. Here are the choice quotes, via Sports Illustrated
On his country of choice:
“They're both great countries. The U.S. is on the rise. Germany is already a great country. So whichever country I choose will be a good choice."
On his contact with Jurgen Klinsmann:
"We've talked on the phone a few times, but nothing advanced. Just a little."
From that, it would be reckless to assume too much, though Zelalem did admit that his father owns a U.S. jersey. With that said, some other details suggest that Zelalem could be leaning toward the U.S. Both Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis and Wilshere insinuated that Zelalem feels, and more importantly, is
American regardless of his current lack of citizenship (which is in the works). That can only help the U.S.’s chances, as it was previously unknown whether Zelalem felt German or American.
The more complicating—or promising, depending on how you look at it—factor is his on-field prospects with each country. In Germany’s favor? Well, it just won the World Cup, and could be the favorites to do so again in 2018.
In the U.S.’s favor? Opportunity. As good as Zelalem is, there’s a very good chance he wouldn’t be on that 2018 Germany roster whether he chooses Germany or not.
The Germans’ current stable of center/attacking midfielders is nothing short of outrageous: Mesut Ozil, Mario Gotze, Andre Schurrle, Thomas Muller, Christoph Kramer, Julian Draxler, and Toni Kroos represent the German World Cup contingent in that position that is 25 or younger. Throw in Sami Khedira (27), Bastian Schweinsteiger (29, but with a game that will age well) and you have an even more crowded picture. And the world-class Marco Reus (25) and Ilkay Gundogan (23) missed out with injuries. It’s quite possible that the German midfield will see almost no turnover before Russia, and it’s hard to see Zelalem breaking in before then.
The U.S., on the other hand, is crying out for a player of Zelalem’s potential quality, and will be especially so by 2018. Zelalem could easily opt for a Julian Green-esque path to a quicker World Cup appearance. Making that an even easier decision would be the fact that Zelalem spent his formative years in the U.S. and considers himself American.
But regardless of the many factors in the U.S.’s favor, U.S. fans will face an anxious wait to see which country Zelalem chooses.
What did you think of Zelalem’s performance? What’s the absolute earliest competition in which he could help the U.S.? Let us know in the comments section.
Blake Thomsen is an ASN contributing editor and you should follow him on Twitter.