Arsene Wenger is playing the long game when it comes to development of Gedion Zelalem, but when that long game is complete, the Arsenal manager expects to find a player ready to compete on the highest level.
Zelalem, Wenger and Arsenal are stationed in San Jose ahead of Thursday’s MLS All-Star Game, a match that will put the Premier League contender with MLS’ elite. However, despite starpower that includes players like Petr Cech, Jack Wilshere and Granit Xhaka, many eyes will focus in on a 19-year-old playmaker that has made just two senior appearances for the Gunners.
Following a loan stint in Scotland with Rangers, Zelalem is back with Arsenal for another preseason trip to the U.S. after previously featuring against the New York Red Bulls in 2014. But, after a year of seasoning in a rugged Scottish league, Zelalem will be looking to make his case to remain with Arsenal going forward.
“Last season he was on loan at Glasgow Rangers, where he did quite well. He is a player with top quality,” Wenger said of Zelalem at Tuesday’s press conference. “He might take a bit longer to mature because he was physically a little bit behind on body structure but I’m sure he will be a great player. He [matured a bit slowly] physically but overall I’m convinced that he will make a great career. Will he play? Certainly a part of the game as well.”
While he has yet to fully make his mark on Arsenal’s first team, Zelalem has made inroads on the international level. After officially becoming eligible for the U.S. in 2015, Zelalem represented the U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team at that summer’s World Cup. Since, the midfielder featured for the U.S. Under-23 Men’s National Team during the team’s unsuccessful qualifying campaign ahead of the 2016 Olympics.
In Zelalem, Wenger sees a player that features an American mentality matched with a European skillset. It’s a type of player Wenger would like to see more of in the future, as the club looks to further scout players from the U.S. as the game continues to grow throughout the nation.
“Americans have a big quality that they are dedicated. When they do something, they do it 100 percent,” Wenger said. “I would have loved to have players coming from here because they have individual responsibility and they are committed.
“I believe that, for a long time in this country, you had a handicap because you play only six months. Every sport lasts six months. In Europe, these players next to me [Peter Cech and Jack Wilshere] play 11 months per year since they were kids. That makes a big difference in practice time and after that, it’s changing. We had practice in the university this morning and the facilities are absolutely exceptional. It’s all there, but it’s a quality of practice and practice time and that means if you want to catch back, the boys have to play the whole season.”