Wenger risks stunting Nelson's growth by playing him at wing-back
The beneficiary of Arsene Wenger's greatest act of positional alchemy was unimpressed with the manager's most recent.
"It was a shame not to see him start in his best position," Thierry Henry wrote in The Sun. "He is a No. 10 or a winger and he played as a wing-back."
The "him" in question was 17-year-old Reiss Nelson, and an unpromising experiment may well continue on Thursday night when Arsenal travel to BATE Borisov in the Europa League.
Henry was referring to Nelson's full debut for Arsenal as the teenager turned out for the Carabao Cup win over Doncaster Rovers last week. Nelson would have been almost unrecognisable to Henry, the man who coached him at Under-18 level and admired him from afar as he began tearing things up as a central or wide playmaker for the Under-23s too. With his history of working with Nelson, Henry can speak with some conviction about a player who has made the trip to Belarus and could well earn his second start, again at wing-back.
Nelson needs only to look at his former mentor for some reassurance about Wenger's motives. Henry's transformation from winger to centre-forward post-1999 altered the history of Arsenal and of English football as a whole. It was not the only positional reconfiguration that Wenger pulled off successfully. Kolo Toure and Lauren were also converted from midfielders into defenders during Wenger's golden years, when everything worked and a league season was traversed unbeaten. But these acts of magic occurred a generation ago, and they were more enduring too.
Wenger, as far as we know, does not want to change Nelson's position for good. Which is handy, as he is manifestly not suited to the wing-back role. His full debut against Doncaster made that abundantly clear: There were plenty of vignettes which showed a player far out of his comfort zone, willing and able to carry the ball forward and link up with the attack, but clueless when it came to the defensive work that the role entails too.
It is customary, for instance, to have your full-backs defending deep from one of your own corners, while the centre-backs lope forward in search of a headed goal. In a 3-4-2-1 formation, that role can naturally fall to the wing-backs. As we saw against Doncaster, suddenly a raw teenage forward is being deployed in an overly defensive role and it was no huge surprise when, from one of Arsenal's corners, Nelson misjudged the bounce of a ball he should never have attacked and allowed an opposition player to run through on goal, only being bailed out by Ainsley Maitland-Niles.
There were moments in the first half when he seemed to be seeking direction from Calum Chambers and Per Mertesacker about where to stand and how to mark. Doncaster sensed his vulnerability and targeted it, trying to exploit the space he left in behind. Nelson looked relieved whenever he had the chance to encroach on the final third; on those moments he approached the box, this wonderful talent came alive.
Having such an electric prospect in his possession, it would be bizarre if Wenger stunted Nelson's progression by playing him in the wrong position and either denting his confidence or confusing his identity. Young players such as Phil Jones and John Obi Mikel have deviated away from the paths they seemed destined for and suffered in their development. In more recent years at Arsenal, Theo Walcott never had to serve an apprenticeship in defence -- why does a player who transparently possesses more talent?
This season's Europa League campaign is a great chance for Arsenal to expose their best young players to first-team football -- and European football at that. Put Nelson in his natural position and see what he can really do.
Perhaps a spell as a wing-back will hone defensive skills which he will call on later in his career; perhaps it will be character building and teach him something about personal sacrifice and placing the team first. Perhaps. But if Doncaster gave him a difficult evening then it can hardly be out of the question that some of Europe's second-tier clubs might be in a mood to subject him to a demoralising experience.
One time in the not so distant past, you would have given Wenger the benefit of the doubt on a matter such as this. There was no one else in the game with his reputation for youth development. But that aura has eroded, like so many others. Now one can only hope he isn't making a mistake which will harm the development of a very special player.
Tom is one of ESPN FC's Arsenal bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @tomEurosport