Commentary

Why Zelalem Shouldn't Join Rangers

If you’re an American that follows soccer, then you’ve probably heard of Gedion Zelalem, the 19-year-old German/Ethiopian/American signed by English Premier League giant Arsenal two years ago, who decided to play for the USA at international level shortly after attaining U.S. citizenship earlier this year.

Just months after attaining citizenship, Zelalem was included in Tab Ramos’ squad for the 2015 U-20 World Cup, where he generally showed well as a center midfielder alongside Fulham prospect Emerson Hyndman, with one particularly outstanding performance in the USA’s 4-0 win against New Zealand. If you haven’t seen the way he orchestrated this victory against the tournament host, it makes for nice viewing --and it also showcases what this kid is capable of.

In any event, the big news surrounding the USA and Arsenal youngster is that former Scottish great Rangers is interested in taking him on loan for the season. In fact, according to reports on Wednesday, he is very close to agreeing to a deal, although it’s unclear still whether it would be for a full season or just until January.

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Before we assess whether or not this is a good move, let’s take a step back for a second. 

Unlike many of USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s German-born American convertees, Zelalem actually spent the most significant portion of his youth development playing in America, where his Ethiopian parents emigrated in 2006 when he was 9.

Zelalem would go on to play club soccer at MSC United (2006-2008), Bethesda SC (2009-2011), and finally, Olney Rangers (2011-2013), which, incidentally, was coached by Soccer America Youth Insider contributor and former George Washington University star Matthew Pilkington.

While playing for Rangers at the 2013 Dallas Cup, the annual international youth club tournament held in early spring, Zelalem was spotted by an Arsenal scout who brought him to London for a trial with the club’s youth academy. After earning a permanent place, the 17-year-old quickly moved up the ladder until he was named as a surprise inclusion in the Gunners’ first-team squad for their Asia Tour in July 2013. Following three strong performances, the youngster was suddenly being touted as the club’s next Cesc Fabregas 

However, despite the hype, Zelalem has yet to appear for the London club in the Premier League. In fact, his only two senior appearances have come in the FA Cup, in 2013-14, and the UEFA Champions League, in 2014-15, in games where the Gunners were already winning comfortably.

In a way, it’s not surprising that Zelalem hasn’t really gotten his chance yet. After all, he’s only 18, and the Gunners -- well, they already have a world-class midfield. In the meantime, the USA prospect continues to put in some very impressive performances for the Arsenal U21s, including this stunning winner against Fulham’s U21s a few days ago.

Nonetheless, Zelalem is at an age now where he needs to play top-level soccer regularly. So, is the Scottish Championship (the second division) the best place for him?

As you may know, Rangers has -- or, rather, had -- an amazing tradition until it went bankrupt in 2012 and was forced to restart life in Scotland’s fourth division the following season. Now, it would be one thing if Rangers had secured promotion to the Scottish Premier League, as it was widely expected to last season, but since it did not, Zelalem would be finding himself playing in a second division that is far inferior to England’s Championship (where some of his compatriots currently play), let alone its Premier League.

Though a player of his quality would likely become a star in Glasgow relatively quickly -- especially if the team romps to first-place and promotion next season, as, again, it is expected to -- would Zelalem really benefit from playing in a lesser competition?

You’d have to imagine that Jurgen Klinsmann, for example, would say no. Off The Post, for one, certainly would. Wouldn’t he be better off showing what he could do in, say, MLS? 

12 comments about "Why Zelalem Shouldn't Join Rangers".
  1. BJ Genovese, August 19, 2015 at 9:37 p.m.

    Its all about the hype train with most of these kids. Its not suprising to learn the he was being championed by Pilkington and I would not be surprised to learn that Pilkington and Karbasyoon (Arsenal Scout) are not pals. I could be wrong but my point is that so many players are totally hailed as the next big thing because they play in a youth system that happens to exclude anyone without a EU passport or they have a parent or Uncle high in the soccer kingdom. Zelalam is a good smart player but he is lacking something that you cant buy... speed. If you are going to play at a high level without speed you better go into the trenches and prove you are so tactically and technically sound that you can make up for that aspect you are lacking. I hope he goes to Rangers and has an promotional season.

  2. R2 Dad replied, August 19, 2015 at 11:38 p.m.

    Have you seen the level of play in the spfl championship? agricultural would be a kind way to describe it; I think Zelalem would get kicked every match if the referees don't protect him--maybe not the ideal environment for development. I haven't seen Rangers play lately so I don't know their style of play, but if it's running and gunning that won't be a good fit for this kid. Not sure that speed is so important if the team is aiming to dominate possession; speed is critical if you're playing counterattacking soccer and expect your attacking mid to track back rather than concentrate on creating magic in the attacking 3rd. This kid IS highly technical and intelligent, someone who might fill Ozil's shoes in 5 years time. Hope he gets to Spain or Portugal instead of Scotland.

  3. Xavi Hernandez replied, August 20, 2015 at 10:33 p.m.

    "...my point is that so many players are totally hailed as the next big thing because they play in a youth system that happens to exclude anyone without a EU passport or they have a parent or Uncle high in the soccer kingdom. Zelalam is a good smart player but he is lacking something that you cant buy... speed." nailed it.

  4. BJ Genovese, August 20, 2015 at 7:59 a.m.

    I think I used the word speed to vaguely. What I meant is quicknes... specifically within ten yeards. I hope he is everything everyone says in 5 years and more.

  5. beautiful game, August 20, 2015 at 9 a.m.

    BJ, I beg to differ. If it takes 5 years for him to develop than he's a flop. Ozil looks likes he's winding down while Zelalem is winding up. He has a high soccer IQ and that alone sets him apart from others. And I fully agree that La Liga, Portugal, or France would be the best development venues for him.

  6. Dan M replied, August 21, 2015 at 11:34 a.m.

    I don't understand people who think they know better than Wenger in these matters. The guy has groomed more young midfielders into top class probably than anyone else in the last 10 years and people still think "Oh well he's a techincal player, he should go to a techincal league, etc." Don't you think AW considers this?

    He's obviously got his reasons for sending 99% of his young players to lower PL/Good Championship sides and in my opinion it's to get them ready for Arsenal and the PL, not to cater to their personal strengths. Guys like GZ are allowed lots of time on the ball even in the opponents third at the U21 level and so sending them into the trenches of hardened English pros will teach them to react quicker. Playing in places like Spain, Portugal or Holland would not teach him these skills and would just cater to the skills he already has which would really only help to stroke his ego, not improve his play.

  7. beautiful game, August 20, 2015 at 9:02 a.m.

    Sorry BJ, my comment was for R2D

  8. Santiago 1314, August 20, 2015 at 1:31 p.m.

    Actually Holland would be the best place for him. .

  9. K M, August 20, 2015 at 3:31 p.m.

    It is silly to pontificate so forcefully with really little knowledge of Zelalem and what he needs. Wenger is thoughtful about all aspects of player development including where to go out on loan. Playing in a rough league may be exactly what he needs. We shall see.

  10. R2 Dad replied, August 20, 2015 at 9:46 p.m.

    Dude, this IS the interwebs--we're ALL geniuses (he furiously typed, while sitting in his underwear in his parent's basement, drinking redbull and playing video games)

  11. Santiago 1314 replied, August 21, 2015 at 12:25 p.m.

    Hate the Red Bulls and their Drink, but I'm looking good in my Beckham adidas undies..jajaja

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