Last January, prized dual-national prospect Gedion Zelalem acquired his United States citizenship and committed his international future to the USMNT. 14 months later how has Zelalem's career progressed? Well, he's currently on-loan with Rangers FC in the Scottish second-division. Young players go out on loans all the time, that's the nature of the sport.
Unfortunately, Rangers matches aren't widely available to view here in the U.S. and we haven't been able to keep tabs on Zelalem much this season. Thankfully, our fellow SB Nation Rangers FC blog, Got The Battle Fever On, have and are more than happy to give us an update on how the 19-year-old midfielder is doing with one of the most historical clubs in all of Europe.
We sat down with the blog's Managing Editor, Callum Hamilton, to get a better sense of Zelalem's progress this season:
SSFC: Gedion Zelalem has seen his playing time with Rangers dwindle as this season has gone on. Can you pinpoint a reason for this?
CH: Unfortunately, there's not really any other reason than that he hasn't been good enough to get in the team (although a knock has kept him out of contention for a couple of games, but he hasn't been missed.) The thing to bear in mind with Zelalem is, he really couldn't have had things go much better in terms of gifting him an opportunity.
The team is pretty settled, except for one midfield position, between the most defensive (tied down by Andy Halliday initially, with Spurs loanee Dominic Ball coming in for bigger games) and more attacking (nailed down by Jason Holt, a 22-year-old from Hearts who has been one of our best players.) The team plays very attacking football and half of their games are spent more or less entirely in the opposition half. They play a very, very similar style to Arsenal. They score a lot of goals. It's been pretty much set up for him to nail down a place, and unfortunately his performances haven't been able to match that opportunity.
SSFC: When he was on the field, what were your thoughts on him as a player? What does he need to improve on?
CH: He initially looked very good, but I think fans quickly realized that there wasn't a whole lot of end product there. He's had a very limited number of assists, almost all of which have been flicks while inside the area, and hasn't scored any goals at all, despite having plenty of chances to do so. It's a fluid system we play - every outfield player except the centre-backs scores quite a few from open play. But he hasn't been able to score, and he hasn't really been able to find killer balls to pick defences apart or help us to break down teams that come and park the bus, which is by far the most effective strategy used by teams playing us.
Basically, he's a much safer player than you'd think looking at some of his highlight videos - too often when he receives the ball he just fires it back in the direction it came, or plays six-yard passes to keep the ball at the wrong time, when play needs to be progressed or sped up. A lot of the time he'll hold onto the ball too long and the chance to make the right pass will be gone. He's good at keeping the ball but his decision-making, awareness and vision really leave a lot to be desired to be an actual playmaker.
SSFC: Would you say his lack of production for Rangers is more a result of him as an individual or the style of play the team plays?
CH: Well, perhaps fittingly, if Rangers have a weakness going forwards it's that they can be a bit too much like Arsenal - a lot of creative, short-passing playmakers and not too much in the way of more direct options. That's changed somewhat recently, as our main striker is a very weird player who is a wonderful finisher but almost never scores from cutbacks or crosses - only by running with the ball at his feet and lashing it into the top corner. Since then he's been injured and replaced with less talented but more orthodox striker, and we've bought a very fast, direct winger. But on the whole, Rangers have a lot of short passers in the team and are sometimes too slow to move the ball forwards.
Basically, he's been competing with two players to be the main driving force and playmaker in the team - Barrie McKay (a Rangers youngster who was very poor and on the verge of being released but had a miraculous transformation this season) and the aforementioned Jason Holt. He's not been able to do it, and they have, for different reasons. He's not been able to match the sheer range, ambition and quality of passing of McKay, who usually plays on the left and can deliver brilliantly-weighted passes, long or short, to switch play or thread the ball through an opposition defence. And while his style of play is more similar to Holt, he's not been able to match his boldness and just general ability to make things happen.
As Arsenal fans will be aware, when you play a very possession-focused short passing game, you have to have players who are on point and who can create a picture in their head - in other words, as soon as they show for the ball, before they've even received it, they know what they're going to do when they get it, where they're going to move after that... they can see the move they're trying to build in their head. Holt can do that, and Zelalem really, really can't. He shows for the ball, gets it, then has to think about what he wants to do, by which time of course the opportunity has usually gone. If you have players like that, the play becomes slow, predictable, and impotent. I just don't think he's that type of player - unless he can show a drastic improvement there, it would probably be worth him being tried in a different role, either deeper or maybe even on the left. Of course, Rangers are only loaning him, so they're not going to upset the balance of their team to try and find the right role for a player they're coping fine without.