Wenger set to hand Zelalem first pro contract... assured teen was born AFTER the Frenchman took charge of the Gunners
By ADAM SHERGOLD
Most lads about to mark their 17th birthday would perhaps hope to receive a new pair of fashionable trainers, the latest Xbox game or some driving lessons to achieve that much-craved independence.
Not so Gedion Zelalem. His birthday present, two days early, was a first team debut for Arsenal when Arsene Wenger threw him on for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain 20 minutes from the end of Friday night's FA Cup tie with Coventry.
And as for a gift on the day itself, Wenger is expected to follow that up by offering him a first professional contract.
VIDEO: Scroll down to see Zelalem talking about Arsenal while he was still playing in the US
Assured: Gedion Zelalem, celebrated his 17th birthday two days early with a debut for Arsenal
Reward: Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is going to hand the talented teenager a professional contract
But then nothing is ordinary in the life and career of a teenager who has already been variously billed as the new Fabregas, Xavi or Iniesta.
Such lofty comparisons seem to hang over every precocious talent that emerges these days, but Zelalem certainly has the faith of Wenger, his Arsenal teammates and at least one national team manager.
He showed some assured touches on his brief Emirates bow on Friday night as Arsenal coasted into the fifth round of the Cup with a 4-0 win.
Cameo: Zelalem looked good in his 20 minute performance during the 4-0 FA Cup win over Coventry
It underlined the promise he showed on Arsenal’s pre-season tour of Asia back in the summer, in which he was a second half substitute in all four matches, and the various youth competitions he has been fast-tracked through.
Wenger said in the week that Arsenal are enjoying a 'moment of a lifetime' as they pursue trophies on three fronts. But the long-serving boss will also delight in seeing the likes of Zelalem and Serge Gnabry come off the production line ready for the senior team.
Zelalem made an extraordinary piece of history on Friday night that will make Wenger feel a little long in the tooth. He is the first player born after Wenger took charge to feature in one of his teams.
Promise: Zelalem first announced himself to Arsenal fans in the pre-season tour of Asia
Wenger was appointed on October 1, 1996. Zelalem was born on January 26, 1997. It’s a bit like the teacher who stays at the same school long enough to teach father and son.
Zelalem burst into the wider consciousness in the Far East, hitting a sumptuous outside-of-the-foot pass for Thomas Eisfeld, another young tyro to watch, against Indonesia (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=toEmku38qKU) and setting up Theo Walcott to score against Nagoya Grampus.
It led to high praise from Jack Wilshere, who said at the time: ‘He sees passes that not a lot of players can and he’s so comfortable on the ball. Even in training, he’s a nightmare to play against.’
The England man went on: ‘He keeps the ball away from you and shields it. He’s not very big but he’s strong. He drifts in and out of players. Technically, he’s right up there. He can use his left and right and he sees so many passes.’
Technically sound, ambidextrous, outstanding vision, strength. With those attributes, it seemed a matter of time before Zelalem forced his way into Wenger’s plans, but injury caused a delay.
Praise: Jack Wilshere was impressed by the debutant
A knee problem in September prevented what would have been a certain debut against either West Bromwich or Chelsea in the Capital One Cup, and he was an unused substitute in the league matches with Fulham and Tottenham. His only action came in the Under-21 Premier League and the UEFA Youth League.
Now though, a big step has been taken and you can expect to see Zelalem in his attacking midfield role again before the end of the season.
Internationally, his situation mirrors that of Adnan Januzaj at Manchester United, in that he is at the centre of a three-way tug-of-war.
Uncertainty: Zelalem's international career mirrors that of Adnan Januzaj, as three nations are fighting for him
Zelalem has represented Germany up to Under-17 level because he was born in Berlin; the United States have a claim because he lived in the Washington area between the ages of nine and 16; Ethiopia have a claim because that’s where his parents hail from.
So, despite his tender years, Zelalem is already a globe-trotter. When he first started kicking a ball, he was on the books of Hertha Berlin, but his parents, who had taken asylum in the German capital in 1990, moved on to Washington in 2006, which is home to a large Ethiopian community.
There, he played for junior teams MSC United, Bethesda Soccer Club and Olney Rangers, before being recommended to Arsenal’s North American scout Danny Karbassiyoon, whom fans may remember as a young hopeful about a decade ago, at the Dallas Cup tournament.
On target: Lukas Podolski scored two goals before half-time in a 4-0 win
Invited for a 10-day trial at Arsenal, Wenger didn’t hesitate. Apparently after taking one glance at his ability, Wenger pulled aside his father and said ‘Your son will play for Arsenal.’
Little wonder US national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann, ironically one of the finest German players ever, wants to poach him from his homeland.
But that’s a decision to be made a little further down the line. For now, Zelalem can enjoy turning 17 safe in the knowledge that he is coming of age on the football pitch.