The U20 World Cup was supposed to provide Gedion Zelalem with an opportunity to end what has been a rather frustrating season on a high.
Instead the midfielder had to be substituted just 34 minutes into the United States’ opening group stage fixture against Ecuador, with it subsequently being reported that he has suffered knee ligament damage that is expected to keep him out for between six to nine months.
The initial thought was that this could well signal the end of Zelalem’s Arsenal career. He has just over one year remaining on his current contract at the club and, should the suggestions concerning the extent of his injury prove correct, the prospect will be sidelined for a significant part of next season.
This major setback comes off the back of a season that never really got going for Zelalem. Following a mixed loan spell with Rangers in the previous campaign, he returned to Arsenal but mainly featured for the U23s, while also making two substitute appearances for the first-team in the EFL Cup.
Then came a loan move to VVV-Venlo in January. It appeared a rather strange situation at the time, with Zelalem surely capable of thriving at a higher level than the Dutch second tier, but then matters became even more peculiar as the Arsenal loanee was used sparingly by his temporary club, mainly being deployed as a substitute on the occasions that he did feature.
The disappointment that he suffered at the U20 World Cup only serves to make Zelalem’s situation worse, but it will at least provide him with a focus. The 20-year-old must strive arduously to get back to full fitness and, for now, can’t afford to look too far ahead with regards to his long-term Arsenal future.
It is a shame that it has come to this, given the immense potential that Zelalem showed upon his arrival at Arsenal. Capable of unlocking defences with precise passes, he has excellent close control and in recent seasons has started to provide an increased threat in front of goal.
The suspicion remains that Zelalem could well have made an impact in the Arsenal first-team had he been given sufficient opportunities but now time is running out and it is difficult to envisage how he will ever get ahead in the pecking order of players such as Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey, who still have many years ahead of them in their careers.
Zelalem, though, must firstly be concerned about ensuring that his recovery goes smoothly. His Arsenal future will be decided at a later date.