Reiss Nelson & another reason to get excited about Arsenal’s future

In Depth

Arsenal’s first post-Wenger season has been a thing of beauty, with early goal of the season contenders from Aaron Ramsey and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and, more importantly, some delicious nutmegs from Alex Iwobi.

The north London side are playing with all the flair and swagger of a team that blitzes through their World Cup group before hitting a wall in the knockout stages, and look capable of continuing to play as if nothing can go wrong, right up until the point that it does.

At times it has been like watching the Gunners of old, made all the better if you pre-emptively embrace the collapse and enjoy the high notes guilt-free.

However, this season we’re getting a glimpse of another trope of the Arsène Wenger era: the academy product whose performances elsewhere have you convinced he’s waiting to step in and save the world.

Just two years after Serge Gnabry was allowed to leave for the Bundesliga on a permanent basis, going on to star for Werder Bremen and earn a move to Bayern Munich, Reiss Nelson has had an equally impressive start to life in Germany.

So impressive, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine Unai Emery allowing the teenager to stay away for too long.

While England manager Gareth Southgate has given Jadon Sancho an international bow against Croatia, Nelson’s goalscoring record has inevitably led to calls for him to get a nod too, just seven months after his first Premier League start.

Nelson’s goal in Hoffenheim’s victory at Bayer Leverkusen caps off an already impressive run of five goals in a little over 300 league minutes.

It comes off the back of a double against Nürnberg, the first of which – while not the hardest goal he will score – demonstrates the confidence of a man who has no reason to think every single chance won’t end in the back of the net.

It’s something which comes with prodigious young talents: a selective memory strong enough to block out the misses and accentuate those moments where things don’t come off quite the way you want them to.

Nelson’s early form has mirrored that of the novice poker player, enjoying beginner’s luck in his first big tournament and growing in confidence with every pot he wins, big or small. He hasn’t yet had to deal with extended setbacks, and this allows him to play with the freedom of someone for whom such moments might as well not exist.

Even smaller moments give of this air of unstoppable achievement: bad luck, if not simply something which happens to others, is at the very worst a problem for future Reiss.

Nelson’s goal against Leverkusen brought with it memories of another goal from a player who, when he scored it, was at his untouchable best.

Back in the summer of 2004, Maniche was in a two-year phase during which winning was the only possible outcome.

A midfield star for Portugal, his two years under José Mourinho at Porto had featured two league titles and two European trophies, and the same period saw him go from being an uncapped player in his mid-20s to a starter in a European Championship semi-final on home soil.

Similarly, Nelson’s transformation from a fringe player at Arsenal to one making a meaningful first-team impact on a near-weekly basis has been enough to encourage him to try new things with the confidence of someone who can’t envisage them not working, regardless of the level of ambition displayed.

As a defender tasked with dealing with a player on this kind of rush, you’re left with a choice: you can stay tight to him, or you can trust that he’ll eventually overshoot the mark and attempt something even he could never pull off.

The problem with the second option comes when the rush is so potent that it effectively brings short-term superpowers, like the star in Mario Kart, allowing the player to not so much cut corners as refuse to acknowledge their existence.

As Hoffenheim prepare to take their corner, it looks like Mitchell Weiser has chosen the second option. He has come close enough to force Nelson into a decision if the ball does fall to the Englishman, but there’s almost an air of daring both Nelson and set piece taker Vincenzo Grifo to combine.

However, there’s a problem with forcing two players to combine to pull your pants down: it might require them to both make the right movements at the right time, but if and when they do achieve it, a crowd has gathered to laugh at your misfortune.

The idea in Weiser’s mind that Nelson’s failure is his success carries a small but important flaw: that particular ‘what if’ doesn’t exist among the options in Nelson’s mind.

What comes from all this is effectively a Maniche tribute act, right down to the goalkeeper flying through the air and only serving to create an even prettier picture.

Lukáš Hrádecký, like Edwin van der Sar 14 years prior, has set himself for the unlikely shot and wound up arcing through the air like fountain water from Matthew Perry’s mouth in the Friends opening credits.

The problem for the Finn, though, is that the ball couldn’t be any more in the corner.

The task now for Arsenal is capitalising not just on Nelson’s ability, but also on his bravery and willingness to take on the biggest of challenges.

They ought to be in no huge rush, having just seen Alexandre Lacazette convert from a similarly preposterous angle against Liverpool and having averaged more than two goals a game in the Premier League, but it must be hard for fans to watch his achievements at Hoffenheim and not grin from ear to ear at the thought of what he might be capable of in north London.

Arsenal can’t bottle up whatever Reiss Nelson is producing right now, but they’ll hope at the very least he saves some of it to use on his return.

By Tom Victor


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