It has been a whirlwind 12 months for Marcelo Flores.
Arsenal’s teenage attacker was still playing Under-18s football this time last year, with his U23s debut for the Gunners not arriving until the final day of the 2020-21 season.
But since then, he has not looked back.
In a matter of months, the impressive 18-year-old has established himself as a key player for Arsenal's U23s, trained regularly with Mikel Arteta’s senior squad and also made his mark on the international scene.
Flores was the star of the show in November when he scored two goals in three games to inspire Mexico U20s to glory in the inaugural Revelations Cup.
His performances captured the imagination of a nation, with widespread calls for the teenager to be handed his full senior debut by Mexico boss Gerardo Martino soon following.
And Martino answered those calls in December, when Flores was included in his squad for a friendly against Chile in the United States.
The Gunners forward was brought on with seven minutes remaining of the 2-2 draw, capping what had been a remarkable few months for a player who does not even turn 19 until October.
“Making my Mexico debut is a night I’ll never forget,” Flores exclusively tells GOAL during an interview to mark his inclusion on the NXGN 2022 list of the world's best teenage footballers.
“All the players took me in well. Some of them were older, but I was really close with them and I trained really well.
“To come on was a very special moment for me and my family. Thanks to the manager for giving me the opportunity.”
As the friendly was not classed as a competitive international, Flores could still choose to represent Canada - the country of his birth - or England. A final decision has yet to be taken, although right now he admits his focus is firmly on Mexico.
And for a player with lofty ambitions, the experiences he has enjoyed this season - both internationally and with Arsenal - have left him thirsty for more.
“I would like to make my Premier League debut before I turn 19,” Flores says. “That’s my goal.”
“And I’d like to get my proper international debut for Mexico and hopefully be involved in the Qatar World Cup.
“I idolise players like [Lionel] Messi, [Cristiano] Ronaldo and Neymar, who have all done the same thing.
“Looking up to players like them, you want to match what they did because like any player, my ultimate dream is to win things like the Champions League and the Ballon d'Or.”
Born in Ontario, Canada, Flores cannot remember a time when he didn’t have a ball at his feet. Football has always been ingrained in his family.
His father, Ruben, was born in Mexico City and played for Atlante in the Mexican Primera Division from 1988 to 1990.
His mother also played and his two sisters, Tatiana and Silvana, now play for Chelsea and Tottenham, respectively, and have also represented Mexico at youth level.
“I started when I was really young,” he says. “My dad always had a lot of his football friends around, so everyone loved football.
“I started kicking a ball when I was really young and I never lost my love for it. I was a really energetic kid and playing football just made me happy.
“Barcelona was my favourite club. My mum tells me that I never used to take off the shirt.
“When I was young my dad took me to a couple of games at Camp Nou. I used to love Ronaldinho.”
Flores’ early football memories are of him and his sisters leaving school early to rush back home and watch Champions League fixtures on TV.
They grew up supporting Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team, and would all pack into their front room to see their heroes in action.
For Flores, it was all about seeing one man.
“I idolised Messi,” he reveals. “For my sisters, it was Alexis Sanchez and [Andres] Iniesta. We just loved coming home and watching such a good team play.
“I used to love those days when the Champions League was on. It’s such a good memory.”
Growing up in Canada, Flores spent a lot of time playing his football at the Guelph Soccer Academy, where his dad was technical director.
But his big break arrived in 2015, when he travelled over to the Cayman Islands with his father, who was coaching the women's national team at the time.
While they were there, Flores took part in a soccer school being run by a man who scouted for Ipswich Town. His performances caught the eye, and he was soon invited for a trial by the English side.
The young attacker impressed enough during his time in England to be offered a permanent place in the Ipswich academy, and eventually he and his family took the decision to all move to England permanently.
“The first year was really difficult,” Flores recalls. “I was playing well, but being a Canadian kid, it was hard at first getting used to the English style and interacting with the English boys.
“But I just stuck to my football and in the second year I put a lot of hours in as my dad became one of the coaches there.
“So on Saturdays and Sundays I would be there all day, and after school I would be there as well. I was training really hard on my own and with the team and it ended up paying off.
“I started doing really well and then a lot of options opened up.”
Clubs across England were now on Flores’ trail, with both Liverpool and Manchester City keen to sign him
But it was Arsenal who won the race for the young forward in 2018 after they mapped out the clear pathway to the first-team they saw for him at the club.
So he moved to the Gunners’ famous Hale End academy and would spend his days looking at the pictures on the walls of players who had gone on to make their mark with the first-team at Arsenal.
“Every day you go to training and walk past those photos,” he says. “That’s the ultimate dream, so every day you give the best you can to improve yourself because you know it can pay off.
“It is an inspiration. Seeing players who have broken through shows you that there is a pathway and if you keep doing what you are doing, hopefully you can get there too.”
It was not long before Flores started to make his mark at Arsenal.
He was handed his first professional contract in July 2020, and made the move over from Hale End to the club’s main training centre at London Colney.
After a series of eye-catching performances with the U18s, he got his chance with the U23s and has become an increasingly influential figure at that level since the start of the campaign.
After waiting for his opportunity, Flores has started to flourish under new coach Kevin Betsy, and his performances have caught the eye of Mikel Arteta, who has invited the forward over to train with the first team on several occasions in recent months.
“The first time I ever went, I was 16 or 17,” Flores says. “I really enjoyed playing FIFA at that time so suddenly training with all these players that I used to play with on FIFA was kind of surreal.
“Obviously you get used to it, but at first it was really cool and you realise just how much better they are when you play with them in person.
“Every time you go, you just want to show your best to the manager and the players, and that’s what I will keep doing.”
Given his progress through from Hale End, it is no surprise that Flores has huge respect for what Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe have achieved during the past couple of years.
He has developed a close bond with both, and is full of thanks for the advice he has received from them as he looks to follow in their footsteps.
“Bukayo and Emile have been through what I’m going through now,” he said. “They understand and they take you under their wing, give you advice and help you out a lot.
“Bukayo went straight through to the first team, which is amazing, but for Emile, who went on loan twice, it was a bit harder pathway for him.
“But to see him come through now, get the No.10 shirt for Arsenal, which is my dream as well. It’s a big thing.
“It shows if you put the time in it can pay off.”
For Flores, the focus now is on finishing what has been a breakthrough season as strongly as possible.
The 2021-22 campaign has given him a taste of what could be to come, but he is well aware that there is still much to do if he is to achieve some of the lofty targets he has set himself.
The past 12 months, though, have certainly shown that anything is possible when it comes to Arsenal’s talented young forward.