Mikel Arteta has backed Reiss Nelson to become a world-class player with Arsenal, saying the young winger has overcome a “confused” period and is ready to play a pivotal role.
Nelson was 20 in December but, despite impressing for England’s Under-21s, his club career is yet to ignite. A loan spell in the Bundesliga with Hoffenheim last season brought seven goals and flashes of his considerable ability but also left question marks over his discipline. Arteta has charted his progress ever since overseeing some academy training sessions while his own playing days wound down and believes Nelson is ready to take a significant leap forward.
“I know Reiss because I coached him when he was 16 and straightaway he caught my eye,” Arteta said. “He is a boy that is willing to learn and loves the game but I think he has been a little bit confused in the last few years – what direction he had to take, some of the decisions that he made. Now I can see he really wants it and I think he has the potential to do whatever he wants. He needs guidance, he needs a little bit of a stick and he’s up for it. I put him to play and I trust him, because he wants it and I think he can deliver.”
Nelson has featured in all of Arteta’s five games in charge, starting three times and scoring the winner in the FA Cup third-round tie with Leeds. Arteta is impressed with the application of a player who, at Hoffenheim, was dropped by their then-manager Julian Nagelsmann after arriving 20 minutes late to a training session. He believes the year spent in Germany was beneficial overall.
“You can go away [on loan] but I was expecting a little more from his side as well,” Arteta said. “He needs to take responsibility as well. If he wants to play for this club every three days, when you step in there you have to be almost perfect and at the moment I see this kind of attitude and desire.”
Coaxing improvement from individuals has been a theme of Arteta’s early coaching career and he has been credited with an important role in the development of, among others, Raheem Sterling. “I wouldn’t like to compare [with Sterling],” he said. “What I will say is that Reiss has the potential to do whatever he wants. If he wants to do it, wants to learn and wants to challenge himself he can be a top, top player for this football club.”
He went on to explain that Nelson was “that good when he was young that everything was a bit too easy for him” and that his priorities are now in the right place to push on. “I think we were all confused at some stage in our careers,” he said. “Even when you do that well and people talk about you, you tend to relax and then you see the picture as a little bit dirty. I think his picture now is very clear – what he wants, want we want from him – and I trust him.”
Nelson is likely to be in contention with Gabriel Martinelli for a starting role on Saturday at home to Sheffield United, with one of the young forwards in line to replace suspended captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The onus is on Arsenal’s available players to step up and compensate for Aubameyang’s prodigious goalscoring output.
“That is the challenge,” Arteta said. “We can’t put on someone’s shoulders the possibility to score that many goals, but the reality is in the last few years that has been the case and we need to modify that.”