Zelalem might weigh 60kg (130 pounds, give or take) just after eating and before copping a squat, but this might actually work to his advantage. At sixteen, he has plenty of time to bulk up. We have seen other youngsters come up and, on the basis of size or strength, boss their way around on the pitch only to virtually disappear after they make the leap to the big times and see that those advantages are no longer available. In Zelalem’s case, his lack of size will force him to learn how to stay on the ball, fight through tackles, shoves, scrums, and fouls, and contend with bigger, brawnier defenders. In this sense, then, his slight frame might turn out to be an advantage in the long run.
You can’t coach size, as they saying goes, but Zelalem has a few years during which he can add height and muscle to his frame. He’s 175cm (5’9″) and could add to that just through maturation, and adding another 10kg wouldn’t be hard to do as well. If he can do that without losing the qualities that make him special—vision, touch, control, agility—we could be looking at a very special player indeed.
During the Asia Tour, he has made some audaciously beautiful passes and has similarly shown flashes of insight on the ball that are reminiscent of Fabregas and other incisive passes. Granted, some of these passes work because of the defenses he’s faced, of course, such as the pass you see in the clip above. It’s still a joy to behold, so let’s set aside the details in order to enjoy it. As Zelalem receives the pass, he has no less than five teammates to pass to, at varying degrees of difficulty. Instead of going for a safe pass, he threads a through-ball almost perfectly, bypassing five defenders and placing the ball right at Theo Walcott’s feet, and all that’s left for him to do is practice his trademark finish (he’s still gotta sharpen that up, as, again, he squirted under the keeper instead of curling it around the keeper as he should. Prepositions, man. They matter). What a pass, though. Right where it had to be, right when it had to be there, weighted and curled perfectly.
Just as exciting as the pass is Zelalem’s awareness. He surely knows what Walcott likes to do and anticipates him doing it and can see a lane for delivering the pass where few others could see it. A clever passer sometimes runs the risk of surprising his own teammates, but, in this case, Zelalem can see Walcott setting up for a run, and his ability to know where his teammate is and is going was breath-taking. If he can combine that kind of awareness with familiarity with his teammates’ abilities and preferences, the sky’s the limit.
He’s 16. By rights, he should be playing it safe, perhaps deferring to more-experienced teammates. Instead, he’s showing vision and confidence—it doesn’t strike me as arrogance; he doesn’t seem to blithely assume that he can do whatever he wants, but his willingness and ability to deliver a killer through-ball like that bodes well for his future. He’s an exciting young talent, and just as much as we need to bring in experienced players from time to time, I can’t wait to see a player like Zelalem develop in-house and earn his way into the first team.