Reiss Nelson is the young player around whom expectations appear to be highest for the new season. @EdwardStratmann takes a close look at the exciting young forward, and what he has to offer this Arsenal team.
Having caught the eye for Arsenal during preseason with some dynamic displays, it was fantastic to see Unai Emery reward Reiss Nelson with a start for the Gunners’ Premier League opener against Newcastle United.
Putting in a shift littered with upside, the 19-year-old vindicated his manager’s selection. Indeed, for the man who joined the club at the age of nine, this was another important step in his quest to become a first team regular at Arsenal.
He returns to the Emirates for the 2019-20 campaign following a beneficial, yet challenging, loan spell with Hoffenheim working under the tactically astute Julian Nagelsmann. In Germany he scored seven goals and obtained 28 appearances in the Bundesliga and the Champions League, this served as a vital experience.
Proving crucial for his development and maturity, as he had to battle injuries and fight for his minutes, his time in Germany reinforced his resolve to stamp his mark during pre-season. And that’s precisely what he did, with Nelson shining against the likes of Lyon, Angers and Barcelona.
Although he’s realistic that his first team minutes will be limited due to the heavy competition for places, he’s determined to grasp every chance that comes his way. “We have Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, [Nicolas] Pepe and Alexandre Lacazette,” he said.
“They are great stars and I’m still only young so I need to sit back and when I get my chance take it,” he explained after the Newcastle win. I just want to take things as they come. It felt great [to start]. It was a great gesture from the boss and I’m just happy to be playing back in Arsenal colours.
“I went away to Germany and I think I did well. But the main goal for me has always been playing in an Arsenal shirt. I know it’s not guaranteed I’m going to be starting week in, week out with the teammates we have. I need to be prepared all the time for whenever I get the call-up.”
A player who can play on either flank or even down the middle if need be, whether starting or coming off the bench, Nelson gives Arsenal another dimension going forward courtesy of technical qualities, speed and intelligent movement.
To start with the latter, he shrewdly picks up where openings are present within the opposition block. Aware of his surroundings through his scanning, Nelson’s particularly dangerous drifting infield to exploit space between the opposition’s midfield and defensive lines.
In doing so, this causes defenders confusion over who should mark him, for his marker (typically the opposing fullback) isn’t always keen to move inside and leave the flank unoccupied, while the opposition central defenders are hesitant to step out and jeopardise their structure. This inherently means Nelson is free to receive in these ideal central zones, where he can then weave his magic with the ball at his feet to drive his team forward.
Another valuable way he finds space is by rotating with his colleagues. On many instances Nelson’s interchanging with his nearby fullback, far side winger, attacking midfielder or centre forward, has freed him or a colleague up, with this placing extra doubt in defenders’ minds.
Competent at pinning and drawing markers away from usable space for his fellow attackers, he’s importantly managed to impact when the ball isn’t in his immediate area. This has been most notable when he’s pinned his fullback wide to generate gaps for a midfielder or striker to receive infield and when drawing his trackers central to generate room for Arsenal’s fullbacks to push into.
The exciting youngster’s runs in behind and into the box also warrant mention, for he cleverly targets gaps in between defenders so he can gain separation while embarking on his runs. Instinctive and a sound reader of the play, he angles and directs his runs nicely to get into strong positions to score or latch onto through balls.
Very good at holding back his runs inside the box as the defence collapses deep and at targeting the blindside of markers, he’s a real handful for defenders.
His blistering runs have also been a weapon during counter attacks, where he relishes springing forward at every available opportunity to be an outlet.
When not pushing infield, Nelson’s demonstrated his worth when hugging the touchline, so he can receive switches of play and isolate himself 1v1 with his man, before cutting infield and powering towards the final third. So good at adding width and depth to attacks, plus at connecting play when coming inside, his multifaceted movement is a wonderful component of his game.
He accompanies this with his technical qualities: his creative dribbling and passing are handy assets. A fantastic dribbler, who boasts a clean first touch and sharp ball control, his aptitude in this regard serves him well in many situations. Capable of beating his man in a variety of ways, he uses stepovers, feints, shimmies, nutmegs and wicked changes of pace and direction to outfox opponents.
Remaining composed on the ball when under duress, he handles being pressed efficiently, as the balanced, fleet footed attacker can weave out of trouble with his maneuverability in close quarters. Another byproduct of his ball carrying prowess is how it provokes one or more trackers, which can vitally create a free man further upfield, plus how it sees him win fouls in advanced locations.
His comfort with the ball at his feet is useful when he drops deep with his back to goal, thus meaning he can either turn his man or hold onto the ball while he waits for an option. His proficient scanning notably holds him good stead when receiving so he knows whether to position his body to protect the ball or to turn and go.
Full of flair and ingenuity, Nelson can be an extremely elusive proposition to contain when on top of his game, with his dribbling giving him essential time and space to execute his actions. While he can overdo it on occasion and rashly turn the ball over, the positives far outweigh any negatives. All that’s needed is a little work on his decision making.
Meanwhile, in terms of his passing, he can link play cleanly with his intricate one and two touch combination play, recycle possession, slide in tidy through balls, switch the angle of attacks and hit some encouraging deliveries into the box.
His capacity to use crafty one-twos has been a real highlight, which has enabled him to get the return ball past his man in a forward facing posture to continue attacks. This may seem simple, but against tough to break down blocks, this can be an efficient method to manufacture openings to unlock and destabilise opposition backlines.
Weighting his passes neatly and with accuracy, the majority of his distribution has been precise. Although this is an area of his game that he’s continuing to develop, his ability to spot his teammates’ runs and use both feet has been valuable, even if his execution can let him down on occasion. If he can consistently get this area of his game fully firing, his threat and opportunities will surely increase.
Looking at his numbers from Arsenal’s friendlies and the Newcastle win, there’s a lot to like about his output. Indeed, his averages of 0.47 XG per 90, 4.41 successful dribbles p90 at 65.4%, 2.33 shots p90, 4.67 touches inside the box p90, 3.63 progressive runs p90, 0.7 key passes p90 and 1.3 fouls suffered p90 illustrate this aptly.
At still just 19 and with so much scope for improvement, working under the guidance of Emery should help him take his game to the next level. With the Spanish coach’s desire to give the likes of Joe Willock, Matteo Guendouzi and himself vital game time, this could be a breakthrough season for him. While he’ll predominantly have to settle for minutes off the bench and starts in the cups, his skill set suits either option. But he could be especially handy coming on against tiring defences if the Gunners need a lift.
Patient, yet keen to develop and to hone his craft in the highly competitive confines at Arsenal, tracking Nelson’s progress this season will be intriguing on his road to fulfilling his dream of making it at his beloved boyhood club.