The days of David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and the Neville brothers has past. It isn't often that players come in to big clubs at a young age and make their way to the first team without having been purchased from a lower division club or non-big four Premier League team. Among current players, Jack Wilshere fits this category if he can stay healthy and cement his place in the middle of Arsenal's midfield. Elsewhere, Tom Cleverley is trying to make the same leap. John Terry is coming toward the close of a career spent at Chelsea since he was 14 years old. At Liverpool, Steven Gerrard is similarly coming to the end of a decorated career that seems destined to start and end at Liverpool. Between the generation of stars whose careers are coming to a close (or have already ended) and rising youngsters like Wilshere and Cleverley there is a big gap in homegrown big club players. Over the weekend I had a chance to watch both Manchester United and Arsenal and it appears that there is hope that Cleverley and Wilshere will have company in the months and years to come.
Manchester United: Jesse Lingard
Wilfried Zaha was the high profile arrival at Old Trafford over the summer. He plays primarily in a wide role with speed being one of his major weapons. Most viewers were probably expecting Zaha to be the young star of United's preseason tour and, to be sure, he has looked like a strong buy with potential to grow into a replacement for Nani/Ashley Young/Antonio Valencia in the next season or two. What was probably less expected was for another young forward/winger, Jesse Lingard, to fire his way into the conversation about the future of United's wing position. With 3 goals over the past two pre-season friendlies - against the A-League All Stars and Yokohama - he has announced himself in style.
Like Zaha, Lingard has speed and the ability to take defenders on one-on-one. Unlike many speed merchants, he also seems to have a nose for and a calm around the goal. Where players like Theo Walcott and Aaron Lennon have struggled to deliver the final product after using their speed to break away from defenders, Lingard appears to be more of a natural goalscorer. Certainly the competition he is facing on United's summer tour is a large step below what he'll be facing when he gets his chances at the Premier League - I remember Gabriel Obertan looking like a major star on a tour of the US a few years back - but at 20 years old I liked what I saw of Lingard. Not just the goals but the passing and the movement as well. Hopefully we'll get to see him against better competition this season in the League Cup for United or on loan in the Championship or maybe even at the lower end of the Premier League.
Arsenal: Gedion Zelalem
Watching Jesse Lingard over the weekend was an unexpected treat but it paled in comparison to what I saw on Monday when I watched Arsenal's pre-season match against Arsene Wenger's former club Grampus and Arsenal's young midfielder Gedion Zelalem specifically. Zelalem hasn't been at Arsenal as long as Lingard has been at United but at 16 years old, he has 4 more years to develop at Arsenal and his path to the North London club is hardly the typical path.
So, why was I so enthralled with a player who is so slight he looks like he'd have trouble making a high school varsity team let alone a professional side in one of the best leagues in the world? Without getting too excited (and remembering the cavaet above about the level of competition), the kid was making Xavi/Iniesta-like passes almost every time he touched the ball. Usually the second half of these matches are difficult to watch but every time the kid touched the ball something very interesting happened. I was actually mad at the rest of the Arsenal team for not feeding the ball to him at every occasion possible. He created two or three great chances for Theo Walcott (only one of which was converted) as well as at least two for young forward Akpom.
As if an Arsenal player making passes that most 16 year olds can't even make playing FIFA on XBOX/PlayStation weren't enough, there are actually other reasons that I'm so excited about Zelalem. First off, he was playing for a club about 30 miles from where I live here in the Washington, DC area when he was signed by Arsene Wenger. There aren't many players playing youth soccer in the US who move directly into the squad for even a pre-season tour with a team the stature of Arsenal. Wait, there's more potential goodness? Despite having ties to Ethiopia (where his father is from) and Germany (where he was borm), he is reportedly looking to acquire a US Passport. He has been involved in the US at the youth level and, if he continues to develop, would bring a level of creativity not yet seen on these shores.
There are certainly no guarantees with a sixteen year old. There was a time not too long ago that Freddy Adu's profile looked similar to Zelalem's. Born overseas. Emigrated to Maryland and dominated the youth scene. Played to great reviews in the US youth system. Earned a big money move to Europe with the "savior of American soccer" tag despite a slight frame. That profile didn't work too well for Adu.
The Adu cautionary tale in no way dampens my enthusiasm for the next couple years of drooling over Zelalem playing in League Cup matches and making silly through passes that baffle lower league defenders.
The opportunity to watch pre-season matches have been few and far between so far this summer. I don't want to imply that these are the only two relatively unknown players making an impression so far this season, they're just the two that I've seen play. They're both sure to be names to know if you hang out with the hipster soccer crowd and despite that, they should also be a blast to watch when they get a chance to play.