The answer my friend, Smith-Rowe was in the wings

I used to watch the Arsenal youth teams regularly but in approximately 2014, I stopped because, well, life I guess. When you watch the youth teams regularly you become very attached to the players that emerge from the ranks- especially if you happened to tip them for the top. I watched plenty of Hector Bellerin in the U-21s and always felt he had an excellent chance of breaking into the first team.

I was consistently effusive about the talent of Serge Gnabry and still feel a sense of strange avuncular pride to see him playing so well for Bayern Munich. Somehow you feel a sense of vicariousness and, undoubtedly, ego that a player you invested in became successful. (Really, you just sat in a cold football stadium and watched).

Anyway, life became busier and I stopped. I made an exception during Arsenal’s run to the 2018 FA Youth Cup Final, in which they were eventually well beaten by Chelsea. I travelled to Colchester for a 5th round tie, attended the semi-final home leg against Blackpool and both legs of the final against Chelsea.

The reason? Emile Smith-Rowe. By now, the Arsenal social media team had begun to cut and air clips of youth games on dedicated Twitter and Instagram accounts. Smith-Rowe’s name and his highlights reappeared again and again. I had to check the player out for myself and I wasn’t disappointed.

Often when you see a player excel at youth level, you wonder whether accelerated physical development might partially explain their dominance. Hector Bellerin looked dominant at U-21 level but he was so much quicker than everyone else. Serge Gnabry was built like a kickboxer even at 17, somehow simultaneously lithe but muscular, which continues, I think, to complement his technical ability.

Smith-Rowe wasn’t notably quicker or more physically developed than his peers. In fact, if anything his slightness prevented his recent breakthrough from arriving two years earlier. It is easy to forget that he scored three goals in the Europa League group stage in 2018-19 as he showed a knack for arriving late in the penalty area to finish moves.

Injuries to his hip and shoulder have enervated his progress until he rescued a sagging Arsenal team, starting in the Boxing Day victory over Chelsea. I don’t think it is overstating matters to describe his emergence as a ‘rescue act’ for Arsenal either. The Gunners have taken 20 points out of a possible 30 since his first Premier League start of the season.

Prior to that Chelsea game Arsenal took five points from 30 available. Sometimes a young player breaks through because of injuries in his position (Hector Bellerin, for example), sometimes they break through because they give the team something it is missing. Smith-Rowe very much falls into the latter category.

In the era of Fabregas, Hleb and Rosicky, or of Wilshere, Ramsey, Cazorla and Özil, he might have struggled to break through. As it turned out, Arteta’s side drastically needed some presence between the lines to connect the midfield and attack, who were often so separated from one another that they might as well have been playing in separate stadia.

Smith-Rowe’s emergence coincided with the conclusion of Arsenal’s messy (and expensive) extrication from Mesut Özil and the biggest compliment that you can pay the Hale End youngster is that he has all but shut down the conversation around that move. While it is probably true that Emile was competing with literally nobody for this role in the team, that is to underplay the quiet brilliance with which he has performed.

Alex Lacazette and Willian have both given the “number 10” role a whirl and neither convinced (with the understandable caveat that neither player has really played there before). The number 10 position is one of the most coveted in football- historically it has been the preserve of the creative genius, socks rolled down, shirt untucked, stroking the ball hither and thither in the final third.

It was a position of glory freed from defensive responsibility. Things have changed nowadays, of course. Now number 10s are expected to press opponents and, happily, Smith-Rowe is incredibly in tune with the modern demands of the position, he is often assigned the task of triggering the press by closing down the opposition centre-back.

Six assists and two goals in about 1,000 minutes are thoroughly respectable numbers for a player in his position. However, his overall contribution stretches far beyond his personal end-product. The Gunners have 21 goals in the 12 domestic games since ESR’s first start of the season on Boxing Day. They scored seven in the 12 domestic games prior to that. (I haven’t counted the Europa League group games during the latter period for reasons that I hope are obvious).

Pepe, Saka, Lacazette and Aubameyang have all looked markedly improved players during this time. That is not entirely down to Smith-Rowe but he, to my mind, is the single largest factor. I think what I like most about him is the simplicity in his game. I think we will see more of his goalscoring talent as the weeks and months progress and the assists are certainly very useful.

He operates as a valve for this Arsenal team and his more unsung contributions are arguably his most impressive- not least because of the maturity he displays. As an academy product playing as a starting number 10 for Arsenal, you could forgive him the occasional moment of over embellishment.

Yet every pass is as precise as a brushstroke. If a winger or a full-back is hemmed in on the touchline, he drifts across to create an exit strategy. If a wide player decides to make a run in-field, he dutifully fills in and maintains Arsenal’s attacking shape. He demonstrated this due diligence just as effectively from the left flank against Leeds as he has from a more central role.

His heatmaps from the Leeds game, where he played from the left, and from the Premier League victory at St. Mary’s where he played more centrally, illustrate a player who is always on the move. He connects the lines of attack wherever they need connecting, like Pacman motoring between the lines gobbling up and recycling the ball, easing its path up the pitch.

Emile Smith-Rowe heatmap v Leeds
Emile Smith-Rowe heatmap v Southampton (PL)

His subtlety and his economy are very rare gifts for a creative player of his age. His technical level really stood out in the youth teams, where he was expected to be the talisman. What is impressive about his development is the extent to which he is willing to be a condiment rather than the main dish, lubricating the passage of the ball. Emile Smith Rowe has been a quiet revelation and the serenity of his impact has been the most impressive part of it.

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