Earlier this month, Gedion Zelalem left Arsenal to join Sporting KC in the MLS and he’s now given an interview to Kicker in Germany that touches on his time at Arsenal.
Zelalem joined Arsenal in 2013 on a free transfer from Walter John High School and, although he was always a slight player, big things were expected of him.
A serious knee injury that kept him sidelined for 18 months, however, really impacted his career and the new management structure at the club were clear there was no place for him at the club.
In the interview with Kicker, Zelalem touches on training with Arsenal, Mesut Ozil, Arsene Wenger, and many other things.
Here’s the full interview from Kicker
In that sense you have been a professional for five years, starting as a 17-year-old in the FA Cup at Arsenal. How was the professional debut?
I have always trained with the first team. Arsene Wenger probably liked what he saw. Against Coventry City (FA Cup, 4th round of 2014, d. Red.) He made me play for the first time with the pros, that was a dream for me in front of 60,000 spectators in this stadium. Suddenly I was on the pitch with Per Mertesacker and Mesut Özil, whom I had always watched before. Oh and: We won, that was not so bad either.
You were born and raised in Berlin, then spent nine years with your Ethiopian parents in the United States and went to high school near Washington DC. How did Arsenal become aware of you there?
I played for a club in Maryland where our coach had contact with an arsenal scout; an American who once played for Arsenal. He first observed me in training and games. At a U-14 tournament in Dallas then the U 18 of Arsenal was present and I have probably played quite well. The coaches invited me to come to London for a week, I was allowed to play again and then signed a contract. Because I was not yet 16, I had to go back to the USA and went to high school for another year.
In North London followed the steep climb: After half a year from the U 18 in the U 23, a little later the debut under Wenger and then even with 17 – touted as the next big “Supertalent” and the “next Cesc Fabregas” – in the Champions League. What’s up with a teenager?
It was pretty crazy, but I was also very confident. I had worked very hard for it, always wanted to go to the pros – and I did that.
Why was never enough for a Premier League game?
Arsene Wenger always wanted me to get stronger so I could physically compete in the Premier League. My parents are Ethiopians, we are not so strong men. (laughs) Meanwhile, that has changed a bit with me. However, I was seriously injured in May 2017 (cruciate ligament rupture, ie Red.), Was a total of 18 months out. When I was finally fit again, Arsenal had probably locked up with me and not used me, not even in the U 23.
Nevertheless, they have been training for a long time with Mesut Özil or with Lukas Podolski. What did you learn from the world champions? And also from coach-icon Wenger?
You can learn a lot from Mesut; how he moves, his passing game. How he plays is just really cool. I adored Lukas Podolski at the 2006 World Cup as a nine-year-old, as did Per Mertesacker. He helped me a lot as a captain, but I can only thank him for that. Arsene Wenger was the first to trust me, but did not talk to me much, he generally does not talk very much.
They are central midfielder, youth coach Matt Pilkington once said, “He dribbles like Iniesta and fits like Xavi.” Were these too many advances?
I do not know, but I’m finally not hurt anymore. Maybe I can retrieve my potential and still live up to the praise.
So returning home: Is moving to the MLS at Sporting Kansas City a step backwards or a reboot?
Clearly a new start. The league has caught up in the last five years, you can also recommend for the national team or for a change to Europe. Who knows what else will happen.
So far, you have not been in the squad yet, but have said in your performance, to see yourself as eighth or tenth, want to help the team, especially with goals. How fast will that happen?
On Saturday I made my comeback in the second team. Because Arsenal knew that I would change, I was not allowed to play there any more and therefore had a considerable fitness backlog. I might need two, three games in the second team, but then I’m very confident that I will become a regular.
You posted a photo of yourself in the SKC jersey with the hashtag “Black Mamba” on Instagram – an allusion to basketball icon Kobe Bryant?
Right! I am a big fan of Kobe Bryant and have always admired his winning mentality. It can only be good if I take that from him.
Kansas City is one of the favourites after the strong last season (first in the Western Conference, then play-off in the Conference Final) on the championship title. What speaks for SKC?
We have a very talented team and a big squad who can always compensate for one or two failures. This is especially important in the MLS in the many games and the long trips. I think we can become champions.
Kansas City has no Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Bastian Schweinsteiger to whom all the attention is focused. An advantage or disadvantage?
We may not have a superstar, but I think it’s good for the team not to have an “arrogant” player with them. We all listen to the coach and put everything under the team success. We all have a goal and nobody thinks only of themselves.
The MLS has been on the rise in recent years, especially talents from South America are changing the image of the “Pensioners’ League”. Do you see a long-term chance to be one of the top 5 leagues in the world?
In England, the MLS used to label many as a retiree league, which is now no longer the case. If you see that Newcastle United has just signed Miguel Almiron for 24 million euros (from Atlanta United, d. Zack Steffen (goalkeeper, Columbus crew, d. Red.) Changes in the summer to Manchester City, Tyler Adams is in Leipzig immediately regulars. That can only be good for the league. If you play well here, you can also recommend for the Bundesliga or the Premier League. I do not know if I’m in the top 5 league, but the potential is there.
After several missions for the German U 15, U 16 and U 17, you assumed US citizenship in 2015, then played for the U-20 and U-23 national team. How did you decide against Germany?
That was very difficult for me, my father lived in Germany for 25 years and would have preferred to see me wearing the DFB jersey, I think. But I had all my friends and family in America, so I decided that in the end. For some of my former German teammates, I still have contact, Benjamin Henrichs or Jordan Torunarigha for example. I have already played with Jordan in Hertha’s U 9. So I’m still a bit German. (laughs)
Gregg Berhalter is currently making a change in the US team, in which Schalke’s Weston McKennie and the still-Dortmund Christian Pulisic belong to the pillars. Do you also see the chance for yourself?
That may be a bit early, I have to bite through SKC and recommend myself. By talent I belong, I think, to that, the (responsible) know that too. Of course, the national team is my big goal, but first please stay healthy.
Last question: Football or Soccer?
Phew, difficult. (laughs) In the US Soccer and in England Football, we just stay there.