Hoffenheim a bold but valuable move for Arsenal's Reiss Nelson
Reiss Nelson completed a season-long loan move to Hoffenheim four days ago. Given the ever-increasing trend of talented English youngsters heading abroad, this deal is more promising than most.
Nelson, 18, has been heralded as Arsenal's brightest youth prospect since Cesc Fabregas graced north London. The Englishman's temporary exit, then, should come as no surprise. Already deemed too good to play under-23 football and under new management in Unai Emery, competition for places is fierce - not least in attacking areas.
Just like Mason Mount, Jadon Sancho among others, Nelson is part of an elite group within England's youth system. He is considered crucial to the Three Lions' next generation. The teenager will only succeed if granted regular first-team opportunities at club level. So, joining Hoffenheim and playing in a top European league is beneficial for his development. He will gain invaluable experience.
Arsenal's Premier League shortcomings in recent years have been a blessing in disguise for their academy prospects. The Europa League and domestic cups served as a useful way for youth to earn minutes without having to go out on loan.
However, Nelson, in particular, agitated for more game time. This drew parallels to Sancho's unhappiness at Manchester City the season prior. Making the matchday squad while training among the senior players would only last so long before Reiss wanted opportunity centre-stage.
Granted his league debut under Arsene Wenger during the 4-1 win over Crystal Palace in January, Nelson made two further starts against Southampton and Manchester United. Due to the Gunners' competitiveness fading drastically, youngsters were given a chance to showcase ability.
Nelson was energetic, impressive, looked comfortable in possession and crucially, performed like belonged. No wonder he was so keen for first-team breakthrough. A breath of fresh air in an otherwise gloomy campaign from the club's perspective, he made 15 appearances, seven starts, across all competitions.
As with Ainsley Maitland-Niles and others before him, Nelson was shifted to right wing-back frequently to accommodate Arsenal's 5-2-3 formation. It helped solidify his defensive awareness and improve positioning. It also left him frustrated, however, as he had to pick moments to accelerate forward more carefully.
It's unfortunate yet serves part of the process at top clubs: talented youngsters rarely get opportunities to prove worth. That's unless multiple injuries and limited squad depth force them into the deep end.
Strengths and weaknesses
Nelson's playing style is direct. As a creative-minded attacker, he is often unselfish when it comes to distributing possession. His hard work-ethic enabled him to improve goal contribution in recent seasons, both scoring and assisting more frequently. He possesses blistering speed, the ability to torment defenders and crucially, can create chances from seemingly nothing if given the ball at feet.
There is one issue in Nelson's game: when deployed on either flank, he can go missing at times. Mainly when not in possession himself or the team are defending for sustained periods. It's an area that will undoubtedly be worked on, just as he embraced improving defensively, helping his fullback and midfielders more.
Nelson has displayed the capability to play in the number ten role, given his unselfish nature and under-rated passing range. Close-control dribbling gives him an edge in that position over most competitors at Hoffenheim. It's important to develop trust with his new teammates because otherwise, he could be tempted to go it alone in attack if things are not going well. Such has paid off at youth level, but it won't as often in the Bundesliga.
As Nelson already realises, competitive football is a completely different experience. He will have to be mindful that for all the fouls suffered and potential opportunities spurned, plenty more await. He's a tricky player to defend against, one defenders typically have no time for. Bracing himself for further attention from opponents is something he'll relish.
Emulate Gnabry's success
Nelson is certainly held in high regards at Arsenal, given their insistence on tying him to a new four-year contract before leaving on loan. It's an insurance policy, not least as he only had 12 months left on existing deal. The Gunners don't want to let another top talent slip through their grasp - like Serge Gnabry this time two years ago.
After an impressive campaign with Germany's Olympic team, where Gnabry scored six goals in six games, clubs began to circle. The German joined Werder Bremen for £4.5 million, performed well and alerted Bayern Munich. The Bundesliga champions were quick to snap him up for just over £7 million.
The Bavarians loaned Gnabry out to Hoffenheim last season. He flourished even further under Julian Nagelsmann's guidance. The 23-year-old scored ten goals and created seven assists in 26 appearances, the best overall tally of his career.
When questioned about the Nelson deal, Nagelsmann said:
Reiss has similar traits to Serge, which is his pace in one-on-one situations. These are qualities that we don't have much of in the squad - it was my wish that we replenish those qualities again. If it [the deal] works, we get a player with a lot of speed, who can do a lot of things.
This is an exciting deal for both parties. Hoffenheim acquire an excellent talent, while Nelson gets to learn from a highly-rated manager, one who will help him make 2018/19 the breakthrough campaign he's been yearning for.