Football is a game of fine margins and there are few players who prove that more than Reiss Nelson. Having returned to Arsenal following a successful loan spell with Hoffenheim, the Hale Ender was handed consecutive Premier Leagu starts by Unai Emery, and apeared to have taken his chance in the second as he tapped home against Burnley. As he wheeled off to celebrate though the sight of a raise assistant’s flag was what greeted him as Nacho Monreal was ruled to have been offside in the build up. Nelson was taken off at half time and would not start another league game for four months.
These close shaves came to define his Gunners career the following season. Each time the winger appeared to gain momentum he was struck cruelly by a niggling injury. Despite expressing his admiration for the winger, Mikel Arteta admitted there was scarcely more that Nelson could do obtain more game time than the eight apperances he was handed. “He’s a boy who tries really hard, he trains every day, he wants to do extra all the time,” the Spaniard said. “It’s very difficult at the moment with the players we have to be able to fit him in. I feel sorry that we don’t have other competitions to use him in, because he deserves more. He doesn’t play more and that’s my fault.”
As the campaign drew to a close it was impossible not to wonder what Nelson could do if given the chance to regularly prove himself at senior level. Having finally been given that opportunity on loan at Feyenoord this season, it’s safe to say the Gunners youngster has grabbed it with both hands.
It did take a while for things to get going though. Having arrived late in the window, he would not make his first start in Holland until December after suffering a groin injury in training. After his frustrations in the seasons prior it would have been easy for the 22-year-old to become dispondent, but it was at this point where his impressive mentality shone through. In the face of adversity Nelson resolved that he would begin to acclimatise his body to the rigours of regular first team football, and set to doing extra work with the Feyenoord coaching staff.
“The intensity was pretty high in training. Monday to Wednesday would be pretty tough; at Arsenal, Monday and Tuesday, we’d do more technical stuff. So I just had to adapt and with that came a few niggles that I had to treat on my own,” he told Feyenoord’s YouTube channel.
“Now I’m in the gym a bit earlier and leave later, to make sure those niggles don’t appear again. (Sports scientists) Leigh (Egger), Tim (Janssen) and Ruben (Peeters) are pushing me every day and I’m getting more confidence in doing five minutes of foam rolling, a 10-minute stretch or the one I don’t like — the ice bath. It’s the little things that give you an extra five to 10 games a season.”
Since bouncing back he has gone on to enjoy some the most consistent run of senior game time in his career, starting each of Feyenoord’s knockout games on their run to the Europa Conference League final and featuring regularly as Arne Slot’s side secured European football in the Eredivisie. In this period he has demonstrated the end product to his game that has always made him such an exciting prospect, managing four goals and seven assists.
He has largely split his time in Holland between the left and the right wing, but more recently Slot has used him in the latter position. The Dutch coach uses Lutsharel Geertruida as an inverted right back in a similar manner to how Takehiro Tomiyasu operates for Arsenal. This means the emphasis is occasionally on Nelson to maintain the team’s width, which enables him to show off his skills as an orthodox winger.
This is on full display in the clip below. Nelson receives the ball in transition during Feyenoord’s match with Fortuna Sittard and is up against former Norwich full back Ivo Pinto. Instead of looking to drift infield, he uses pace to drive towards the by-line.
Having arrived there he plays a low accurate ball across to Geertruida, who has taken up a central position in the box, and the Dutch defender fires home.
Far from just doing this against lesser sides in the Eredivise though, Nelson proved that he’s equally capable of doing it on the big stage. During the Europa Conference League final with Roma on Wednesday night, the England under-21 international caused Nicola Zalewski plenty of problems by driving to the by-line.
Far from just being an old-school winger though, Nelson is also capable of cutting inside as modern forwards tend to do from wider areas. On the stroke of half time he forced probably Feyenoord’s best opportunity of a cagey opening period by breaking through the Roma block and unleashing a left footed shot from the edge of the box that could well have caused Rio Patricio some problems had Rick Karsdorp not got across brilliantly to block.
This versatility in approach contrasts to more predictable wingers in the Arsenal squad like Nicolas Pepe, and could be a useful addition for Arteta going into next season. The Spaniard has been receiving briefings from loans manager Ben Knapper, who was in attendance for the Conference League semi final second leg with Marseille, and would surely have also taken notice of how much the defensive side of Nelson’s game has improved in Holland.
The 22-year-old has always been an impressive high presser, having spent time in Germany. This was proved by his match-winning goal against Liverpool in the project restart game at the Emirates Stadium. However, this year, with Feyenoord’s aggressive approach to regaining possession he appears to have gone up another level, managing 2.54 interceptions per 90 as opposed to 1.68 last season.
Feyenoord have been so impressed by Nelson’s displays that they would like to keep him beyond this season, but the Hale Ender’s contractual situation means that is unlikely. “In a final contract year, they don’t loan players anymore,” the club’s technical director Frank Arnesen said. “Keeping Nelson, that’s almost impossible for us.”
As a result he is set to return to North London in the summer, where, with just 12 months remaining on his contract, he finds himself at something of an impasse in his career. Arsenal are reportedly impressed with what Nelson has done in Holland, and with Pepe keen to leave this summer, the Hale Ender could yet have a role to play for the Gunners.
He fell on the wrong side of a fine margin yet again on Wednesday night as Jose Mourinho ‘s defensively inspired Roma side ultimately edged out Feyenoord 1-0 in Tirana. While it will take time to recover from that heartbreak, Nelson can find solace in the fact that the best may still be yet to come.