Reiss Nelson Hits a Crossroad in His Arsenal Career
“In youth football, you always have players who everybody who sees the player and thinks ‘this is a special one, he might be able to make it. I think Reiss Nelson was a great example of that. I saw him first when he was 14, and there was hardly any doubt about it. He was very talented.
It’s a long way from there to the first-team, but you could see he had the talent. Reiss; his talent was not questioned at all. Everybody could see, and with everybody I mean absolutely everybody, whether it was a coach or the opposition coach or a parent or a grandparent watching. Everybody would recognise the talent of that little boy.” – Andries Jonker; former Arsenal Academy manager
These are words that have been echoed before. From São Paolo to Hokkaido, and everywhere in-between. The world is filled with footballers who are naturally gifted; Reiss Nelson is one of them.
Much like his close childhood friend and Borussia Dortmund star Jadon Sancho, the jury was never out on whether Nelson had the innate ability to reach the top. But the unfortunate reality is that the pieces have yet to come together for the England youth international in a way many would have hoped.
Arsenal was an outlet for Nelson, who grew up in the Aylesbury Estate in South East London, an area that has struggled mightily for decades.
Between deprivation, gang and drug-related issues, and failed regeneration plans, Reiss’ rise through the academy – beginning at the age of eight – coming from an area where others have failed to get out, has been an incredible once.
This too is a story so many have told: talented athletes in many different sports, in many different countries, under very similar circumstances. Some make it out, but so many do not. For Nelson, his gifts and opportunity with Arsenal was a motivator. And it showed on the pitch.
As he rose quickly through the youth ranks, it culminated in his full debut – a substitute appearance – against domestic rivals Chelsea in the 2017 Community Shield. This came off the back of impressive outings during the 2017 International Champions Cup pre-season tournament.
For the rest of the 2017 calendar year, Nelson would yet again be called upon, first against 1.FC Köln in the Europa League group stage, and then making his first start for the club against Doncaster Rovers in a League Cup tie.
By the second half of the 2017-18 campaign, he had manoeuvred his way into Premier League appearances against Crystal Palace and Southampton, while also receiving the Premier League 2 Player of the Year award for his key performances for the U23-side.
Though no pathway was available to him in the immediate future at that time, Nelson and Arsenal secured a loan to Bundesliga outfit TSG 1899 Hoffenheim who, at the time, were under the tenure of Julian Nagelsmann. On the surface, this was viewed as a fantastic opportunity for Nelson to propel himself to the next level and come back ready to fight for a place at Arsenal the following season.
It all started well at first for the London-native. Though he was not in the matchday 2 squad for Hoffenheim’s 3-1 home win against SC Freiburg, he came off the match on matchday 3 away at Fortuna Düsseldorf and scored to bring Hoff level, despite them going on to lose late on.
He would not have to wait long to find the back of the net again when he yet again would come off the bench to bag his second of the season in another 2-1 loss, this time to Eintracht Frankfurt.
But it was enough for Nagelsmann to award him with his second start away at 1.FC Nürnberg, and he would repay that faith with a brace. Nelson would also go on to score a further two goals and register his only assist of the season over the next three appearances.
Six goals and one assist over seven outings – such was the hype that began to surround him back home that many began to call for him to be first-choice for Arsenal on the right side of the attack. His direct style of play and confidence on the ball – as well as pace to burn – made him an initial fan-favourite in Sinsheim, but his stock began to fall around the winter pause.
According to Hoffenheim, Nelson struggled with issues relating to his family back in England, and it highlighted a broader disciplinary problem that put him at odds with Nagelsmann off the pitch. On it, he struggled to truly adapt to the overall demands the prodigious young German headmaster set forth.
When going forward, Nelson was effective, and he even showed this across multiple positions. But without the ball, and transitioning to defence, he struggled a great deal. Overall, it can be said that he never fully adapted to the system in place. His potential was clear, however.
At Arsenal in the year since his time in Baden-Württemberg, Nelson is still – at current – on the outside looking in.
In a summer that saw the club break its transfer record for LOSC Lille’s Nicolas Pépé, a massive and very talented roadblock for Nelson, was acquired. As such, his chances this past season have been limited.
Across seventeen league appearances in the 2019-20 campaign, Nelson made the starting XI just seven times and registered just a single goal.
Though he would have better luck in other competitions for the Gunners – compiling two goal and three assists in five combined outings in the FA Cup, Europa League, and EFL Cup – Nelson has failed to truly break through as a regular contributor in the vein that many had hoped he would this season.
There are fresh links coming out of the Arsenal camp via manager Mikel Arteta and his desire to add more attacking players at the club, including rumoured interest in Brazilian duo Willian and Philippe Coutinho. Further reinforcements in the front-three positions could find Nelson in a real bind, one we have seen before with Serge Gnabry.
The pathway for Nelson is now littered with obstacles. Adversity is not inherently a bad thing, and it is something he himself has experienced and negotiated before. But as he quickly comes up on hitting the age of 21, the harsh reality is that he may require something we will not be able to give him in a period so crucial to his progression and development as a young footballer.
When players such as Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, Jadon Sancho, and Marcus Rashford are mentioned, the defining factor seen across the course of all their careers is the notion that they were crucial pieces for their clubs by the age of eighteen or nineteen.
Havertz made his full debut at 17 and never looked back, now being lauded as arguably one of the best U-21 players in the world, along with Sancho. Rashford – now twenty-two – made his full debut for United five seasons ago and has already made close to 150-appearances for the Red Devils. Werner was a regular for VfB Stuttgart at the age of seventeen and is now one of Europe’s most consistent goal threats, while everyone is fully aware of the rapid rise and progression of Sancho.
It can be debated whether or not Nelson has what it takes to become elite (or close to it) in the same category of the aforementioned players, but what they, like so many others in nations like Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, and yes, England, can fall back on was a true pathway of that growth. It’s the reason Sancho left Manchester City for Dortmund: opportunities.
As we move into a hopeful era of progression under Mikel Arteta, a young and budding manager who is not afraid to put faith in young players, Nelson finds himself at a potential crossroads.
In Arteta – who himself has praised Nelson for his commitment and ability – he has a manager who could very easily place faith in him with chances to impress.
But in a 2020-21 campaign that could well be without Europa League football should we fail to win the FA Cup final at the weekend, it is likely that our strongest XI week-in week-out would feature in the league. And right now, realistically, Nelson does not make that XI ahead of a Nico Pépé who has seemingly finally settled to life on Hornsey Road. His chances could well grow increasingly limited.
Nelson’s love of Arsenal and desire to be at the Emirates is unquestioned. His bond on and off the pitch with other academy graduates like Bukayo Saka, Joe Willock, and Emile Smith-Rowe is a strong one. But a choice of sentiment over logic may potentially be his undoing.
Like his friend Sancho, Nelson could eventually find himself choosing his career path over his desire to remain, just like Gnabry did as well.
For Reiss Nelson, it truly could be a make or break period in a career that – we all hope – comes to the good, rather than being reflected on with lament.
In closing, here are some positive words of hope from Kevin – more affectionately known in the fanbase as Next Generation Arsenal on Twitter – about Nelson from youth player to the present;
“He was a joy to watch, playing the game with such flair and pace. However, at times, translating that into senior football has been a struggle.
He was fearlessly direct on the ball [at U23-level], committing defenders at will and creating a habit of scoring fantastic goals. His consistency in scoring and creating were unmatched at level.
The season in Germany came with a blend of success and adversity, and lots of lessons around professionalism were learned whilst being able to showcase his ability at a higher level.
Now, since his return, his confidence has not always been visible in his game, but its clear he has the trust of Arteta and could thrive under this new-found stability at Arsenal. The Liverpool and Watford games served as evidence that a confident Reiss Nelson can be a game changer.”
For the boy born in Elephant and Castle, we can all hope for the same, Kev, no matter where he lands.