LONDON — At 17 years old, Reiss Nelson represents an increasingly rare bright spark in an otherwise declining Arsenal academy. The versatile attacker signed his first professional contract last season after impressing in the youth ranks and he has continued to live up to expectations over the past few months, culminating in a pre-season call-up to the club’s tour of Australia and China.
While others have bemoaned the results at youth level and seen the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City utilise their billions to lead the way, Nelson has shown that the Gunners’ Hale End academy is still capable of producing exciting talents who have the potential to play for the first team.
Arsene Wenger’s decision to reward Nelson’s performances for the academy with a place in the first team squad emphasises the faith he has in the English youngster. Nelson was named Man of the Match in the 2-0 win over Sydney FC and eventually earned his first competitive start against Doncaster Rovers in the Caraboa Cup on Wednesday.
Former Arsenal midfielder Ray Parlour believes he can become a star of the future if he continues along the same grail.
“He’s got everything,” Parlour told Goal .
“I was impressed with how composed he was on the ball and his confidence in tight areas. He’s got electric pace — when he drops his shoulder he’s gone.
“Things like his final delivery can improve. He’s only 17. I’m thinking of other players who were his age and he’s got so much talent. Now it’s down to him to keep his feet on the ground and work hard and I’m sure he’ll get opportunities.
“Arsene Wenger really talked up his praises when we were out on tour. I said ‘these youngsters are different class’ and he said ‘yeah, they’re working so hard and they’ve got a massive future’.
“Again, it’s all about working hard and if he does that he can be a star of the future.”
There is some debate over which position Nelson’s future lies, although Wenger revealed over the summer that he played him at right wing-back in a bid to further his development with regards to defensive responsibilities.
“He’s a more offensive player, more a guy who can play as one of the three strikers or as an offensive midfielder,” Wenger told Arsenal Player. “What is good for his education is to play in this position as well because we learn how to cope with defensive responsibilities, and that’s a good part of the education of the modern player.
“As strikers or creative players, you tend to have two kinds of players. Some who are good at running with the ball, and some who are good at running off the ball. He’s more a player who likes the ball to his feet and provokes opponents by passing them.”
This season Nelson has already scored six goals in five Premier League 2 matches, the most recent coming with a curling free-kick against Manchester United just days after being named as the competition’s Player of the Month for August.
His skillset is unique and has got Arsenal supporters around the world talking. Nelson’s character appears along the same lines as fellow academy graduate Alex Iwobi, a player who has been praised for his down-to-earth nature and ability to take instructions on board.
Nelson’s talent hasn’t gone unnoticed by his team-mates either, with German star Mesut Ozil keen to take the prodigy aside during pre-season to offer a few words of wisdom.
“Funnily enough, Mesut’s been talking to me and really helping me through the games,” Nelson said in the programme ahead of the Emirates Cup. “After the first game he seemed impressed and he couldn’t tell how old I was. When I told him he was really surprised. From there, he’s just been telling me loads of stuff that I need to be doing – how to behave on and off the pitch.
“It’s crazy to be getting advice from one of the best players in the world.”
Among all the naysayers and doommongers who believe Arsenal’s Europa League participation is a sign that they are no longer a big club, an opportunity awaits for fringe players and a potential breakthrough for someone like Nelson.
He has the world at his feet at just 17-years-old and will be desperate to avoid the mistakes of his highly-rated predecessors who never fulfilled their potential, but with the likes of Wenger, Ozil and Sead Kolasinac all talking him up this summer, it is clear that he can become a star — it’s now Nelson’s turn to show what he can do.