While a busy deadline day at Arsenal saw Joe Willock, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Zech Medley secure themselves loan moves for the second half of the season, there was one young Gunner on the fringes of the squad who seems to have been left behind.
After declaring his desire to stay at Arsenal and fight for a first-team spot at the start of the campaign, Reiss Nelson has struggled to secure regular minutes for the first XI, even when the team’s form dropped sharply in November and December.
Though the Hale End graduate has featured regularly in the Europa League and domestic cup competitions, he has only two substitute appearances in the Premier League so far – a combined title of 70 minutes. With the struggling Willian and Nicolas Pepe both preferred in Nelson’s preferred right wing position, and Bukayo Saka having made the position his own in recent weeks – opportunities for the Englishman to impress have been, and look likely to be, severely limited.
So what now for the promising 21-year-old?
It’s worth bearing in mind that Nelson still has time on his side and that the demands of this curtailed season mean squad rotation is likely to improve his chances of selection but, with Arsenal no longer in the domestic cups and with the Europa League campaign moving into the knock-out rounds, the question must be asked if Nelson runs the risk of stagnating.
Training with the first team and taking part in match-day squads is good experience, of course, but there must come a point where that ceases to be enough and playing time becomes essential in order to reach the next level. Folarin Balogun, who is two years younger than Nelson, is already agitating for more minutes and he hasn’t achieved half of what his fellow Hale End graduate has.
It would seem then, that an opportunity was missed in this winter window to find Nelson a club with whom he could kick-on in the second half of the campaign. I don’t for a moment believe that no enquiries were made or that the prospect wasn’t at least discussed between manager and player, particularly when Willock and Maitland-Niles – two young men at similar stages in their careers – were quick to take up Premier League opportunities.
Perhaps Arteta convinced the 21-year-old that he will get his chance in the weeks ahead or maybe the player reiterated his desire to stay put and challenge those ahead of him in the pecking order. Both possibilities provide hope for Nelson but are they the best course of action for his development?
We’ve yet to see the player perform over a sustained period – with injury and inconsistency often curtailing promising starts – and, barring a series of unfortunate events, that is unlikely to change soon, which is why the decision not to seek a loan opportunity becomes more difficult to understand.
Perhaps the player has no interest in playing abroad again or the only options open to him would have seen him playing at a level lower than he might have liked. There again, the success of Emile Smith Rowe at Huddersfield and Eddie Nketiah at Leeds – both at Championship level – show that simply performing well, whatever the level, is enough to put you front and centre in the manager’s mind.
Arsenal have a fantastic crop of young talent who are all coming to the fore at the same time and Nelson is among them. They won’t all make it, of course, but the difference between success and failure can often be in the timing. You have to seize your opportunity when it arrives – just ask Smith Rowe, Hector Bellerin or Cesc Fabregas. But if the door to the first team doesn’t open by chance, you can only force your way through with effort and, ultimately, impressing on the pitch.
No Arsenal fan wants to see a youth product leave with his talent unfulfilled but, when all is said and done, there is little room for sentimentality in elite sport. After all, only 11 players can take to the pitch in each game.
When Nelson looks back on his time at Arsenal in decades to come, he may look at these next six months as the fork in the road that ultimately shaped him.
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