There are very few players in football that draw your eye and make you think within yourself that ‘this player is going to do wonders if he follows this path’. That feeling right there comes at different points for fans of different clubs. More often than not, the feeling is biased because you love your club and want your youngsters to do well for your club or just in their careers, irrespective of the club. While few live up to the billing, Reiss Nelson is somebody who can still live up to this potential, but like everybody else, he will face an uphill task.
The Arsenal starlet is wanted by Patrick Vieira at Crystal Palace as the former Gunner tries to reshape the South London club. But why Reiss Nelson. Is he talented? Yes. Does he have the potential to become a good player? Yes. But what else has caught the eye of Vieira?
This is the journey of Reiss Nelson.
Chapter 1: Swashbuckling youngster
Picture this – You are 7 years old, and your best friend is Jadon Sancho, yet you are heralded as the better talent. Reiss Nelson was that good and perhaps still is. A frequent player at Burgees Park in southeast London, Nelson played the game because he loved it, not because he eyed a career in it. None of us do – we love to kick the ball or show our talent off by nutmegging our friends just to get one up on them, its the way Nelson would play the game, and it would show. Thus, it was not long before he started playing for Moonshot in Catford.
This is where Nelson’s first idea of representing a badge came through, and he acted in the same manner. The name on the front is all that counts and the kid wanted to win every game, and he made sure he did everything in his power to do so. Soon, at the age of 8, Nelson was a part of Arsenal’s academy. Thus, he was a Gooner, but he did not have the ego boost that came along with it.
Sayce Holmes-Lewis was one of three men working for Southwark Council as community sports coaches, running the borough’s teams at the London Youth Games. He once spotted Nelson playing a game of ball and was in awe of how far along this kid was as compared to others.
He told the Athletic: “That very moment we saw him, we were in awe. [Reiss] He was just phenomenal for a young player. He was outrageous. He was ahead of everything that we’d seen.
“In the same team was Jadon (Sancho), but at that time, Reiss was the main man in that age group. His ball control. Playing at a tempo beyond his years. His technique and his skill were just outrageous. We asked him who he played for. ‘Oh, I just play for Arsenal,’ and we just all started laughing. He was so blasé and humble about it all.”
This was a player who turned a team into serial winners rather than joining a team consisting of serial winners.
It is a fine line, but the distinction is huge.
At Year Six (Age 10-11), Southwark ran out as London Youth Game Winners with Nelson as the top scorer. Ahmet Akdag, who worked alongside Holmes-Lewis said “He would just glide past players, know when to stop the ball, how to change pace, and change direction again”– not qualities you would associate from a kid who is on the precipice of his 11th birthday.
It is all about following the right path, and Nelson did that brilliantly. He associated himself with the right people, played his football with immense dedication and he knew that he was still far off from becoming the player he knew had the potential to become. This was a kid who preferred playing for his school, London Nautical, rather than going on day release at the Arsenal academy. Nelson has become a figurehead at the school and has since also partially mentored two to three kids who have joined the Leicester and Arsenal academy respectively.
However, his journey took long strides only after he became 15.
CHAPTER 2: A splutter of brilliance
Training with the Arsenal boys and keeping his head down. Nelson had been doing this since he was eight, and seven years later it paid off when Arsene Wenger went on to say that he is one of the best 15-year-old’s he had ever seen. This is a manager who has won the Premier League and reached the final of the Champions League with the likes of Theirry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires, Robin van Persie, and several others.
The last kid, who Wenger mentioned in the same breath as Nelson, was Jack Wilshere, who ripped apart Barcelona in their hay-day in the Champions League as a 19-year-old. So, even though Wilshere’s career did not pan out the way most people expected it to, the talent was unreal.
These are the starting signs that you have made it, and your only choice now is to make it to the top – No pressure, right? Things only got more real for Nelson when he signed his first professional contract with the Gunners in December 2016. The kid was now on the map of every London football circle and he was a known boy, even though he had not shown anything on the big stage as of yet.
Reiss Nelson began his senior career during Wenger’s last season at the club, as he was starting games as a wing-back in the Europa League. This was a fine step by Wenger, who understood that Nelson needs to play among the men now and he needs to understand this level of football. He may not succeed in it, but he will certainly understand what he needs to do to get there. Nelson ended the season with 15 appearances in all competitions – valuable experience for any 18-year-old coming in through the ranks. He was still one of Arsenal’s best players in the Premier League 2, as he had 12 goal involvements in 9 games.
Unai Emery was soon appointed, and Nelson had a feeling that this was his time to go out on loan, as he took some inspiration from his best mate, Sancho, who had also joined Borussia Dortmund from Man City only a year ago and Nelson could see the progress he was making.
Reiss joined Hoffenheim in Germany under the stewardship of the tactical genius in Julian Naglesmann. This was the best guidance any break-out kid could get at that time. Nagelsmann’s use of youngsters and honing their talent was supreme and Nelson’s work ethic coupled with his desire to do well gelled seamlessly with the German coach’s ideologies and tactics. The Arsenal loanee made 31 appearances in all competitions that season, as he scored 8 goals and provided an assist by playing on the right-wing.
Stats do not exactly matter at such a time, and it did not for Nelson either. The youngster just needed the attention and coaching he thought Wenger would provide him with, but luckily for him, he eventually received from one of the best in the business today. Reiss Nelson learned the concepts of possession, use of space with and without the ball, and the importance of working in synergy with one’s teammates.
He returned to the Emirates at the end of his loan spell, and while Palace, Bournemouth, and Norwich wanted to sign the player on a loan deal, Arsenal did not budge, and they wanted to keep the player at the club, despite his minimal experience of playing in the club’s first team. The first half of the 2019/20 season was not a pleasant one for Arsenal fans and it eventually ended with Emery getting the sack and Arsenal legend Mikel Arteta managing the club after gaining sizeable experience from being Pep Guardiola’s assistant at Manchester City.
Reiss Nelson started playing more under Arteta as he started four of the Spaniard’s first five games in management, and showed everybody why he was starting when he scored the winner in Arsenal’s 1-0 victory against Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United in the FA Cup.
However, the end of the season was going to be even more eventful for Reiss. Post Covid-19, without the fans inside the stadium, most games suddenly had a neutral feel about them, and there was no “ooh’s and aah’s” every time a player touched the ball or got dispossessed off it.
Arsenal were up against Liverpool, who were already confirmed as the Champions of the Premier League, and thought that they could rip apart the Gunners at the Emirates. Nelson, however, had different plans. After Sadio Mane opened the scoring, Arteta’s men were under pressure, but the Southwark boy felt none of it. He pressured Virgil van Dijk into making a mistake, and Alexandre Lacazette jumped onto the ball and equalized. Mind you, this was a defender nobody had dribbled past all season, and certainly, nobody dared pressure. Nelson did not think twice and did what he thought he had to do.
His glory moment came soon when the Gunners pressured the Reds into a mistake again, and it was Lacazette this time who crossed the ball into the box for Nelson, who skipped a beat and slashed into the corner of Alisson’s net– a keeper with the prospect of winning the Golden Glove that year. However, Nelson still remained calm, celebrated the goal, and saw out a momentous victory. The Gunners went on to win the FA Cup that season.
Unfortunately, last season did not pan out the way Nelson would have wanted it to as he has only made 15 appearances in all competitions, but a lot of it was due to poor results by Arsenal in the first three months of the campaign, coupled with breakout seasons for Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe.
This, however, does not take anything away from Nelson, who is now wanted by Patrick Vieira at Crystal Palace.
CHAPTER 3: The reason Vieira wants Reiss Nelson at Palace
Dynamic, athletic, and plenty of flair on the ball– Reiss Nelson is a piece in Vieira’s vast jigsaw puzzle that is just waiting to fit into the correct slot. The South London club have also signed Michael Olise from Reading, who is an exciting prospect and like Nelson, prefers playing on the right. However, this is why Reiss Nelson works for Patrick Vieira.
Nelson’s lack of game-time has resulted in him not having a set role in a team or a position he slots into comfortably. He understands the basics of the game while he also has the qualities to play across the frontline. However, he has not been moulded into a player who goes to a club and makes a particular position his own. Yes, Nelson has featured on the right more often than not, but nobody would bat an eye if he plays through the center or on the left someday.
Thus, Vieira has the opportunity to mould Nelson into his primal position and develop him as per his abilities and qualities. This is a perfect match for several reasons –
A) The Frenchman needs a player like Nelson who will work hard week in and week out;
B) Reiss Nelson will be a sponge in the hands of somebody as technically talented as Vieira;
C) Nelson gets his hands dirty at a Premier League team, courtesy of which he can develop qualities necessary to play at this level every week.
So, unlike most signings, Nelson does not need to fit a particular criteria for Vieira. He is hungry, and he wants to play– nothing better you want to hear from a budding 21-year-old who wants to become the man Arsene Wenger earmarked him to be. He has been the best player through the ranks at Arsenal, and all he needs now is a manager who will believe in him and can afford to give him minutes. Reiss Nelson understands that over the course of a season, he can build up some form and maintain consistency. He has the quality, he knew it since he was eight.
It is now time to harvest that potential, and who better to do so than somebody whose potential was exploited the most by Arsene Wenger himself. Life has come full-circle for Vieira, and he now has the opportunity to turn Reiss Nelson into a player, everybody including him, thought he would become.
This is Nelson’s time to reach out and touch it and become something different, something unique, perhaps something special!