Zane Monlouis: Arsenal's teenage defender out to be Hale End's next star

Zane Monlouis NXGN GFXGetty/GOAL

It was a stroke of luck that changed Zane Monlouis' life.

He was just seven years old when he was walking down the street with his dad, close to their home in Lewisham, south-east London.

The pair were strolling past KFC when they spotted a family friend, who had some links with Arsenal. They gave him a wave, and he came over. 

From that point on, things have not been the same since.

“It was a weird one,” Monlouis tells GOAL during an exclusive interview. “We just happened to spot him and he asked me if I was good at football.

“I said yes, and I ended up getting a trial. I’ve been at Arsenal ever since. If I’d said no, I probably wouldn’t have got the opportunity!”

That fateful meeting was 10 years ago, and Monlouis’ progression in football has been on an upwards trajectory ever since.

A product of Arsenal's famous Hale End academy, the classy young centre-back has been on a fast track towards senior football and has already made an impact at Under-23s level.

Now, the 18-year-old is setting his sights on joining the long list of Hale End success stories who have gone on to star for the Arsenal first team.

"The name Hale End has got a big following since players like [Bukayo] Saka and [Emile] Smith Rowe came through,” Monlouis says. “And I’m obviously very proud of that. But I feel like there is a lot more to come from Hale End as well; it’s not just them.

“I feel like I can contribute, and so can some of my team-mates who I’ve been with from the start.”

Monlouis adds: “Seeing what Emile and Bukayo have done inspires me a lot, because I used to see them around when I first joined.

“I used to watch them play and I used to be amazed at some of the stuff they were doing at such a young age.

“So, obviously, they have inspired me because it shows that if they can do it, it’s possible for others to do it as well.”

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For Monlouis, football has always been part of his DNA.

Born into a football-mad family as the youngest of three brothers, it was very rare that he did not have a ball at his feet.

He started out by playing with Dulwich Hamlet before beginning his journey with Arsenal.

“I supported Arsenal,” he says. “So, that worked out well. My dad and my brothers were supporters, so I just copied them really. I loved Thierry Henry.

“I remember when I signed I was so happy to sign for the club that I supported and all my family supported. It was a big thing for me.”

During his early years at Hale End, Monlouis started out as a striker, and it was not until Luke Hobbs, who is now Arsenal’s assistant academy manager, moved him into defence for a game that he started to get a feel for the centre-back role.

“I think it was a game against Colchester,” he recalls. “I can’t remember what age group it was, but I didn’t like it at first. But now I’ve embraced the position, I’ve adapted.

“I’d say I’m strongest when I’m in possession. I’m composed on the ball and I can pick out a pass.

“I feel like I can always progress the team forward from the back, whether it’s a long pass, or breaking a line into a midfielder. That’s my strongest attribute.”

Monlouis signed his first professional contract with Arsenal when he turned 17 in October, 2020, and made seven appearances for the U23s during his first season as a full-time player. But after an encouraging start to the current campaign, his progress has been halted by injury.

A hamstring tear has consigned him to the sidelines during December, and he is not due back until late-February.

For a player who has not been used to any significant time in the treatment room, it is a frustrating period, but one he is determined to make the best of.

“It’s starting to get a bit draining now just being in the gym every day,” he admits. “But I know I have to get through it. I’m going to work every day to try and get back fit as soon as possible. That’s all I can do.”

Prior to his injury, Monlouis was becoming a familiar face around the first team at London Colney.

Having made the move full-time from the academy to Arsenal’s senior training centre, he would often get the call to spend a session training with Mikel Arteta's squad.

And while it has been a steep learning curve at times, the experience is one Monlouis believes has helped him feel more at home away from the familiar comforts of Hale End.

“It was a bit difficult at first because I was just a young boy,” he says. “Obviously, when I was an Under-16 at Hale End, I was just used to seeing people younger than me.

“But when I started as a first-year scholar and was around the Under-23s and the first-team, it was quite a big jump for me because I had to adapt to being in a whole different environment.

“I’d only seen the first-team players on TV, but suddenly I was seeing them in person and I was up against players like [Pierre-Emerick] Aubameyang and [Alexandre] Lacazette in training. It was a great experience.”

Monlouis adds: “[Gabriel] Martineli really stood out. He’s so sharp. One second you see him, then the next second he’s gone.

“He’s so fast and nippy and he’s a good finisher as well. And being from Brazil he’s got that little bit of flair about him. He’s going to be a top player.”

Monlouis’ focus now, however, is purely on the U23s and getting back to full fitness as soon as possible.

Manager Kevin Betsy has made a huge impact since taking over from Steve Bould in the summer, with the Gunners youngsters firmly in the Premier League 2 title race at the halfway stage of the season.

With so many players having progressed through the ranks together at Hale End, there is a close bond between the team and they are all flourishing under the guidance of Betsy.

“It is exciting,” says Monlouis. “It feels like a family because I’ve known most of them for a long time. Even the new players who have come get welcomed really well and I feel like things are going to get better and better.

“There’s obviously banter off the pitch, but on the pitch everyone knows to just get serious.

The England U17 international adds on Betsy: “Kevin is great to work with. I feel that I can learn a lot because his attention to detail is great.

“He allows the attackers and the defenders to express themselves. He doesn’t really like the ball going long and that allows us to work on our game and try and get out of tight situations. He encourages us to do that and he’s enhanced my game a lot.”

So, what does the future hold for Monlouis?

First and foremost, he wants to make a full recovery from his hamstring injury and then end the season well with the U23s.

Beyond that, however, he admits that a spell out on loan appeals to him.

“It would be a big thing,” he said. "I would like to go out and gain some first-team experience in men's football.

“I feel it’s a big jump because it’s just a lot more demanding, the coaches, the players, the environment, the changing rooms. It’s all very different from the academies and if you can adapt to it well, it can enhance your performances on the pitch. Just look at Emile, Dan Ballard and a few others.

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“If you manage to adapt your game well enough and take things in your stride, a loan can take your game to the next level.

“Then, after that, it would be about trying to break into the first team at Arsenal. That’s my main goal.”

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