Meet Gedion Zelalem, Arsenal's next Fábregas

Gedion Zelalem is 16 years old. He has yet to feature in a competitive game for Arsenal.

Arsenal believe that they have unearthed their most promising player since Cesc Fábregas while the story of Arsène Wenger's first look at the boy, during his trial at the club, has crackled around football's grapevine.

The manager watched for a matter of minutes before he pulled Zelalem's father to one side. "Your son will play for Arsenal," Wenger said. Academy forms would be prepared. He joined upon his 16th birthday last January.

Zelalem's reach already has a global feel. Three countries in three continents are pushing to secure his allegiance and this does not include England who, on the evidence of the overtures to Manchester United's Adnan Januzaj, might also be alive to Zelalem's possibility, as he begins to fulfil the residency criteria.

Jürgen Klinsmann, the USA coach, made a personal call to him at the beginning of the season and urged him to commit to the Stars and Stripes. Zelalem, who was born in Berlin and has represented Germany at under-16 level, lived in the Washington area from nine to 16. His parents are Ethiopian and so the African nation has a claim on him, too. There is no little irony behind Klinsmann's attempt to woo the player. Klinsmann is enshrined in German footballing legend.

Zelalem has made coaches, scouts and agents purr. How about this from Matt Pilkington, the Olney Rangers youth coach in the US, who helped to develop him? "He dribbles like Iniesta and he passes like Xavi," Pilkington said. "I've thought like that for the past few years but I've been wary about saying it. I don't worry now."

Zelalem came to prominence in pre-season and he was arguably the star of Arsenal's east Asia tour, when he appeared as a second-half substitute in each of the club's four matches. He wowed with his vision and easy rhythm, with one outside-of-the-boot through-ball for Thomas Eisfeld against Indonesia generating the YouTube hits. His assist for Theo Walcott against Nagoya Grampus made headlines.

"It won't be long before he is ready," Jack Wilshere, the Arsenal midfielder, said at the time. "He sees passes that not a lot of players can and he's so comfortable on the ball. Even in training, he's a nightmare to play against. He keeps the ball away from you and shields it. He's not very big but he's strong. He drifts in and out of players. Technically, he's right up there. He can use his left and right and he sees so many passes."

Zelalem has a maturity about him, which stems, in part, from his globetrotting experiences. He emigrated to the US when his father, Zelalem Woldyes, chose to pursue a new life for himself and the family (Zelalem has his father's Christian name as his surname, in keeping with Ethiopian tradition). Woldyes, who had taken asylum with his wife in Germany in 1990, had friends in the Washington area, which is home to one of the world's largest Ethiopian communities outside the country itself.

Zelalem had been part of the Hertha Berlin youth programme and, in the US, he bounced around a series of junior teams before he joined Olney Rangers. Pilkington, a Rochdale boy, who had trials at English clubs before taking a soccer scholarship at George Washington University and settling across the pond, has vivid memories of his first look at Zelalem. Most people do.

Pilkington has been pivotal to the Zelalem story. He got him in November 2010 at Olney Rangers and he played him in the under-15s and under-16s. The club's philosophy of promoting skills development and technique over winning undoubtedly helped. Zelalem blossomed.

Pilkington sought to find Zelalem a professional club and, to borrow the US phrase, he reached out to Danny Karbassiyoon, the Arsenal scout in north America. Karbassiyoon, the one-time Arsenal player, came to see Zelalem train and play and, in April 2011, he recommended that others from the club watched him at the Dallas Cup, the annual youth team tournament.

An Arsenal side that featured Emmanuel Frimpong was playing that year and Steve Bould, then the club's head academy coach, together with Steve Morrow, the international partnerships performance supervisor, saw Zelalem and they liked him. A lot.

Other clubs were on the case, chief among them Sporting Gijón, and they had Zelalem over to train with them. The Spanish club boast links to Barcelona and Zelalem was tempted by the thought of developing at Gijón and earning a transfer to the Camp Nou. But Arsenal nipped in. They invited him to train with them for 10 days in the summer of 2011 and Wenger knew immediately that he had to sign him.

Zelalem's status as a German national made his move to the Arsenal academy straightforward. After the age of 16, he was free to work anywhere within the European Union. But a unique complication looms as Zelalem considers his international future.

It is not difficult to imagine who Wenger would prefer Zelalem to declare for, and that is before the travel demands of having a US international at a European club are factored in. There is a further irony in that Arsenal's majority shareholder, Stan Kroenke, and the club's transfer fixer, Dick Law, are American while the chief executive, Ivan Gazidis, spent a good portion of his working life in the US.

Arsenal simply want to tie down Zelalem to his first professional contract, which he can only sign when he turns 17. The vultures have circled over the past 12 months and, whisper it, he has been poachable, in much the same manner that Fábregas was when Arsenal took him from the Barcelona youth system.

But Zelalem is ready to commit. He chose Arsenal for a reason in the first place and none of his feelings towards them have changed. Wenger fast-tracked him to the under-21 team last season; he took him on tour and he has given him a first-team squad number. Arsenal have put in the effort since he was 14. They have been correct and diligent. They have treated his family well.

Gedion Zelalem is primed and determined to make his mark. Remember the name.

Credit: David Hytner/the guardian