The U-20 World Cup begins next weekend in South Korea, with the tournament a time to see some of the world’s brightest talents compete before they become household names. Of course, success in youth tournaments doesn’t always translate to stardom in senior football. Past winners of the U-20 Golden Ball award include top players like Pogba, Agüero, Saviola and of course Messi and Maradona but also forgotten players Henrique Almeida, Dominic Adiyiah, and Ismail Matar. Despite the uncertain nature of their future, it is always exciting to keep tabs on your country’s, and your club’s top youngsters at tournaments like this.
The Arsenal contingent at this year’s tournament is made up of England’s Ainsley Maitland-Niles (19) and the USA’s Gedion Zelalem (20). Both will be hoping to showcase their ability and return to Arsenal next season with a chance to prove themselves in the Arsenal midfield. Let’s take a look at how this summer could help decide their futures at Arsenal.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles, England.
London born and bred, Ainsley Maitland-Niles joined Arsenal at the age of 6 and has been a regular in England’s youth teams since making his debut for the U-17s in 2014. An important member of Paul Simpson’s squad, Maitland-Niles has made nine appearances for the U-20’s this season, even captaining the side against the USA and Iran in the fall. Maitland-Niles is expected to anchor the England midfield alongside regular captain Lewis Cook in South Korea. England will need Maitland-Niles to be at his best if they are to have a successful tournament having been drawn in a difficult group containing the hosts, Argentina and Guinea.
Should Maitland-Niles have a successful tournament, the platform could be there for him to really kick on with Arsenal. Arsène Wenger has been known to place value on his players’ performances at youth tournaments giving numerous players their breakout season following the U-20 World Cup. Johan Djourou, Francis Coquelin, and Ashley Cole are a few examples Maitland-Niles can look to who made the breakthrough the season after a successful U-20 World Cup campaign. A technically proficient player, comfortable in numerous positions including central midfield, on the wings and even at right back, Maitland-Niles has impressed when given the opportunity in the FA and EFL Cups.
Gedion Zelalem, United States.
Once one of Arsenal’s brightest prospects, the midfielder’s career has stagnated in recent times. When Zelalem made his Arsenal debut more than three years ago at the age of just 16, he was likened to Fàbregas and Wilshere for his exceptional ability on the ball. Since his debut, however, Zelalem has made just three more appearances for Arsenal. Two loan spells have only raised further questions about Zelalem’s future. Somewhat of a regular at Rangers last season, Zelalem made 28 appearances, assisting eight goals as Rangers were promoted. Two substitute appearances in the EFL Cup were all Zelalem was afforded this season before being sent on loan to VVV-Venlo in the Dutch Second Division. The move was meant to give the youngster regular minutes but turned out to be something of a disaster as Zelalem was afforded less than 200 minutes in the second half of the season.
The tournament in South Korea will be Zelalem’s second U-20 World Cup with the United States. Two years ago in New Zealand, Zelalem was a key member of Tab Ramos’ side that went out in the Quarter Final on penalties to Serbia, the eventual winners. Zelalem is one of just three players (Cameron Carter-Vickers and Erik Palmer-Brown) from that side that will be in South Korea this summer and is expected to be a leader for the American side as they attempt to negotiate a group containing Ecuador, Senegal, and Saudi Arabia.
Despite Zelalem’s struggles with VVV-Venlo, there is still hope for the future. Heavily linked with Thomas Tuchel’s youth revolution at Dortmund, the talent is there to see and at just 20 years of age, there is time for Zelalem to fulfill the promise he showed as a 16-year old. A strong showing in South Korea could be enough to convince Wenger that he is ready for a permanent place in the Arsenal first team.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Gedion Zelalem are two extremely highly rated prospects who are both on the verge of the Arsenal first team. This is a hurdle however, that is exceptionally difficult to clear. Strong performances at the U-20 World Cup this summer could go a long way to deciding their futures at the Emirates.