How do you solve a problem like Reiss Nelson? The young Englishman was one of the most exciting talents coming through the academy in years. While the first team was going through a bit of transition the fans were screaming out for one of their own to lift spirits and hopes. A massive buzz was emanating from the youth ranks, a few YouTube clips surfaced of a younger Nelson skipping past defenders with such ease you couldn’t help but ask who is this kid?
Information and access to youth football isn’t as restricted as maybe it was many years ago so if you wanted to see the stats and view some games of this player in person it was obtainable after a few clicks on your mouse. Reiss Nelson was the real deal and the buzz led to calls from the fans for Arsene Wenger to give us a glimpse of him in the first team.
Alas his moment came back around 2017 when he was afforded some minutes in pre-season for the club. As per the Wenger way he was he was eased into first team proceedings and not thrown into his favoured position to start with. There were plenty senior players ahead of him who also required the first team minutes and so he was berthed as a wing back for those pre-season games. Wing back offered a little less pressure in that role and a chance to gain valuable minutes and experience with the first team.
You could call that season as his break out into the first team. Although he didn’t make many appearances he managed to get starts in the customary League Cup and Europa League competitions that season as well as a Premiership debut. We saw flashes of the talent but the exposure was limited due to the talent ahead of him such as Alexis Sanchez, Iwobi, Ozil and a soon to join Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The appearances he did make were nothing ground breaking, just ok. And that’s where the problem laid; Reiss looked good but never quite had a game where you were left thinking “wow”.
Again it would be harsh to be critical on him in his first season in the first team but it was felt that the kid we saw in the clips terrorising defenders that got the fans excited was locked away somewhere inside. The fans wanted that player unleashed; Things weren’t great on the first team front with the whole Sanchez leaving saga and the Wenger Out thing at the time. It was clear by the end of that season that Reiss had outgrown the youth/reserve level but wasn’t yet at a stage to trouble the players ahead of him in his position in the first team.
He needed minutes to develop and he needed men’s football to take him to the next level. That duly came with a loan move to Hoffenheim. Arsene Wenger by this time had moved on and Unai Emery sanctioned the loan move after ensuring prior he signed a new long term deal at the club. The move to Germany proved to be a success as he was given the exposure to first team football at a far higher standard than u23 football. He scored some goals, got minutes and returned back to the club with a new level of confidence you would expect. Now was the time to kick on and make the right wing berth his own in the first team.
The appearances that season did improve vastly for Nelson and he certainly could identify as a member of the first team then. He scored his first goals for the club and featured across all the competitions but and there is a big but here. His appearances were again ok but nothing ground breaking. As a fan I so badly wanted him to have defenders for breakfast like I remembered in the clips from his younger days but it just never materialised on a regular level. You could argue that it doesn’t help when the club was in turmoil from the turgid football played under Emery and the once again negative vibes emanating from the stands. It could have been the tactics, it could have been the manager uncertainty or the fans unrest but whatever the factor we the fans never really saw a breakout performance from Nelson where we could look back and say “wow, what a talent this kid will go far.”
For example think back to days when we had Quincy Owusu-Agbeiyie making appearances in the League Cup games and he would have fans on their feet applauding some performances so impressive you would be forgiven for thinking you was witnessing the birth of a new superstar.
Admittedly that was a false dawn and once Quincy played for the first team he seemed far out of depth against Premier League standard players compared to the cannon fodder from League 1 and League 2 he would terrorise. It is that transition to taking on the highest level of opponent that sets apart promise from true talent.
Reiss Nelson showed promise in the earlier part of his Arsenal career and to me now he is showing glimpses of his talent, this to me sets him apart from Quincy. Although the individual impact in games have been short of man of the match awards I have seen enough glimpses under Mikel Arteta that shows he does have in the locker what he threatened to show in his youth. Sometimes it just takes the right manager to unlock the potential and he has every chance achieving that under Arteta. Its rare to get the next superstar ready and packaged off the youth team shelf. An apprenticeship often has to be served as the kinks are ironed out and adaption achieved. It’s not quite there yet for Reiss but he has time on his side and with the belief of the right manager will show that more consistently as he matures. On Wednesday night against Leicester I saw Nelson look far more comfortable and composed on the ball. He was intelligent with his distribution, had a couple speculative chances that fizzed just wide and for balance missed a very good chance in front of goal he really should have hit the target with at minimum.
Yes, the Leicester team was weaker given the level of the competition but still littered with a majority of premiership level players. He looked like one of the players likely to make things happen for the team however one of the biggest problems to happen to the Reiss Nelson story is the emergence of Bukayo Saka. The younger youngster looked so classy in that Leicester win leaving Arsenal fans purring at his talent.
One of the reasons Nelson probably gets a hard time from critics is the emergence of Saka which in comparison makes Nelsons progress look less impressive. It’s just one of those things; Saka came into the team at a time of need, took his chance and hasn’t looked back. The journey of his transition into a first team player was one that many expected for Nelson but has been achieved at a far quicker rate and now you have to admit he is well ahead of Nelson now in terms of first team status. Again this is not to say Reiss is past it, far from it and the talent is there to be unlocked it just doesn’t help when a younger kid who wasn’t on the radar when you came on the scene makes a bigger impact. People will always use it to compare often unfairly but it’s hard not to compare the development of two young players coming through at the same time.
It has been reported that Nelson has now been made available for loan by Arteta. Something I don’t think indicates lack of belief from the manager but identification that to keep on developing he needs a pathway to first team football that isn’t heavily congested as it is by the likes of Pepe, Willian and co. The Hoffenheim loan helped push Nelson’s development on and another loan which I hope would be to a Premiership club will help push him on even further. He is still looking the part for England U21 and is a talent many clubs would love to have on board. I just hope that A) he goes on loan to a high level club playing the right football and B) does not find the loan such a success that he seeks to continue his career away from Arsenal.
That is always the danger with loans but at the same time given the trajectory Arsenal are headed under Mikel Arteta it is a project any young player would want to be a part of. A loan isn’t a rejection and as long as Nelson knuckles down and works hard he will be a regular feature in the Arsenal first team for years to come and become the player we all saw and believed he will become.
Enjoy you day people.
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