Jeff Reine-Adélaïde: ‘It was obvious Mikel Arteta would go on to be a manager one day’ | Soccer

When Jeff Reine-Adélaïde was looking for a new club last year, he had plenty of interest. But the former Arsenal teenage prodigy, who had joined Lyon for €25m in 2019 after resurrecting his career at Angers, kept being asked the same thing.

“A lot of teams wanted me last summer but the question was if I was really ready to play a full season,” he says. “I could understand that they were scared after my injuries because I had only played a few games and I wasn’t starting much.”

After two ACL injuries wrecked Reine-Adélaïde’s chances at Lyon, the fact that he has made 24 appearances this season for RWD Molenbeek – the most since his breakthrough season at Angers in 2018-19 – has been a triumph for him. Having arrived on a one-year deal at the Brussels club, which is part of John Textor’s Eagle Football group that also owns Lyon, he was recently made captain by the new coach, Yannick Ferrera, in recognition of his leadership abilities as the team battle against relegation from the Belgian top flight.

“I’m really happy that I’ve managed to play the whole season without injury and start every game so it’s been really good for me,” he says. “I really needed it – now I can trust my body again.”

RWDM, whose full name is Racing White Daring Molenbeek, moved off the bottom of the relegation playoff league by beating Eupen 3-1 on Saturday but face an uphill task to stay up after being promoted last season. Reine-Adélaïde leads a young team made up of players drawn from other clubs in the Eagle Football network, including the Brazilian club Botafogo and Crystal Palace, and has been deployed in a deeper midfield position than he was previously known for.

“It’s been very good; I am the player that everyone has to search for on the pitch to try to build the game,” he says. “It’s very different to when I was at Arsenal because then I was the youngest player and now I’m 26 and I’m one of the players with the most experience in a young team. I played with some big players when I was at Arsenal and I took lots of advice from them. I became more mature at Lyon and now it’s my time to help the young players. I really like to do it because when you start playing football you can learn so much.”

Reine-Adélaïde was described as “something special” by Arsène Wenger after starring in an Arsenal pre-season friendly against Kevin De Bruyne’s Wolfsburg a few weeks after joining in 2015, providing the assist for Theo Walcott in a 1-0 win. “It’s still like a dream,” he says of that memory. “As a 17-year-old kid who had just arrived from Lens, the whole day was incredible for me.”

Jeff Reine-Adélaïde in action for Arsenal against Sutton United during an FA Cup fifth round match in 2017. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

The world appeared to be at the feet of the athletic midfielder from Champigny-sur-Marne in the Parisian suburbs as he starred for Arsenal’s youth side and was tipped for stardom by a certain Mikel Arteta, who described the teenager as having “all the attributes to become a really good player”.

“On the pitch he was very good and the same off the pitch: he was the captain and all the spirit came from him,” says Reine-Adélaïde of the current Arsenal manager. “He used to take the team talk before the game and it was obvious that he would go on to be a manager one day. I remember once he came to me and said: ‘I’ve spoken to the manager and he says you’re going to play but you need to keep working.’ He used to speak to Wenger every day because he wanted to know what the gameplan was for everyone. He was like a big brother for everyone.”

He adds: “Everything was very good – there were lots of French players at Arsenal at the time so I found it very easy to adapt myself to living in London. On the pitch, I felt very good because I was playing with such good players every day and trying to learn from them. Per Mertesacker gave me lots of advice, even if on the pitch he used to shout at me!”

Reine-Adélaïde played eight competitive matches for Arsenal in his first two seasons and watched on from the bench for one of the infamous 5-1 thrashings by Bayern Munich in the Champions League. But an ankle injury required surgery and meant he missed the club’s 2017-18 pre-season tour.

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“You have your chance and if you miss it then you have to work hard to get back into the team. It was hard after that. Sometimes it’s about timing and maybe mentally I wasn’t ready enough. Not to fight, because I had the hunger inside me – I was there training properly –but they brought in some new players when I was injured and it was hard. But I’m really happy to have had that experience.”

A move to Angers that Reine-Adélaïde describes as “the best choice in my career”, after a successful loan there, earned the transfer to Lyon. Yet having sustained an ACL injury in December 2019 that ended his season, he was out for almost a year after sustaining the same injury on loan at Nice. Reine-Adélaïde said in an interview with L’Équipe that it was “the worst thing to ever happen to me” and that retiring had “crossed his mind”.

“When everyone is with you, everything is fine,” he says. “But when they’re suddenly not there, it’s a different experience. When you are young and everyone is saying: ‘You are the future, you are the future,’ you have to keep your feet on the ground, think about working hard and never give up. The advice I would give to a young player is to never stop working because you never know. Look at me, I was close to my dream and I had two injuries … But my mentality was that I needed to work hard to come back to the top level.”

Reine-Adélaïde, who is understood to have been tracked by several clubs in Ligue 1, will be a free agent in the summer and is unsure where his future lies, although he insists he has “got a lot of seasons left in me”. As for Arsenal, he is hoping that they can recover their Premier League form and finish top for the first time since 2004.

“I’ve still got some friends in the squad like William Saliba, Eddie Nketiah and Reiss Nelson,” he says, “and I hope they are going to win the Premier League title. Good luck to them.”

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