Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Here we are and here we are and here we go

One of the greatest pleasures of fandom is watching a young player come through from the club academy to be a star player in the first team. Recruitment seems to provide the biggest frisson in football nowadays in the form of transfers; but I would argue that fans are just as excited by the emergence of an academy star as they are an expensive new signing.

There is a greater romanticism around the academy player made good but youth products largely fill the same emotional space as a big money signing- the promise of a better future. Arsenal’s team has been transformed recently through the market with the likes of Gabriel, Thomas Partey, Benjamin White, Martin Odegaard, Albert Sambi Lokonga, Aaron Ramdale and Takehiro Tomiyasu.

However, the most transformative players in this new iteration of Arsenal both emerged from Hale End in the shape of Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe- the Arsenal fans have even authored a song for both players to the tune of Status Quo’s ‘Rockin’ All Over the World.’ The fact that they wear numbers 7 and 10 on their backs respectively is significant.

Saka really burst onto the scene during the 2019-20 season and was awarded both a new contract and a new squad number in the summer of 2020. Emile Smith Rowe has surfed the exact same wave at a 12 month remove from his fellow Hale End graduate. Smith Rowe actually broke into the first team at the outset of the 2018-19 season, scoring a couple of goals in the Europa League group stage before injury wrecked a loan move to RB Leipzig.

He altered Arsenal’s fortunes last Christmas when he came into the team for a surprise 3-1 home victory over Chelsea and has never looked back since. In the summer of 2021 he was awarded a new contract and asked for the iconic number 10 jersey. “We talked a little bit, we discussed it and he knows the consequences of that,” Mikel Arteta explained back in July.

“He feels prepared to do it and if he is prepared to do it, then I am going to be right behind him to try to make him as comfortable and as happy as possible to do what he wants to do.” Arteta’s tone when discussing Smith Rowe has shifted since the player inked new terms, he gushes less over the player now and instead focuses on how he can improve and demand more of himself.

After his goal and man of the match performance against Aston Villa last Friday, Arteta said, “That should be a habit and he should demand that in his game, because he’s capable of doing it. I’m pleased he’s developing that. He still needs to develop more in other areas.” He also pointed to changes the player has already made, “He’s changed the way he’s living a little bit as well, and some habits that he had.”

Arteta has obviously decided that Smith Rowe needs a little hint of stick to go with his carrot and it seems to be working. ESR has taken a step forward so far this season, the eye test tells you that. What does the data say, though? Well, with the caveat that we are still relatively early in the campaign and the sample sizes from 2021-22 are small (albeit he only really played half of last season), some key trends are becoming apparent, especially in the final third. (All data is Premier League only).

All data per 90 minutes2020-212021-22
Goals0.130.25
Assists0.250.25
Goals and assists0.380.50
XG (expected goals)0.130.19
XA (expected assists)0.190.11

What becomes immediately apparent is that he has elevated his goal threat. What is most interesting, for me at least, is that his expected assists have actually dropped and his expected goals have increased. There will be more than one reason for this but the basest conclusion we can draw is that he is shooting more and passing less in the final third.

That is almost certainly a product of a conversation with Arteta and the coaching staff over the summer. His shot data confirms this suspicion. He has doubled the number of shots he is taking and, roughly speaking, a whole extra shot per game ought to translate into another goal every four or five games. Over the course of a season, that adds up.

All data per 90 minutes2020-212021-22
Shots0.811.63
Shots on target0.251.00

Arteta spoke candidly about the player taking on more responsibility in front of goal and upping his scoring potential over the summer. “When you are playing for top clubs, those individuals in forward positions have to decide matches week in and week out. And that is obviously related to scoring and assisting.” We can see what the data is showing us, Smith Rowe has taken that message on board and is eager to take on that responsibility.

When we dig deeper into the data, we also see a player that is taking fewer touches than he did last season and making fewer passes. He has two goals and two assists in nine appearances this season so far. Last season he managed two goals and four assists over the course of 20 appearances. He is doing more, with fewer touches and that points to a player who is becoming more efficient.

All data per 90 minutes2020-212021-22
Attempted passes45.337.1
Completed passes39.733.4
Total distance of passes (distance that passes have travelled in any direction)595.8503.8
Total progressive distance (distance that passes have travelled forwards)112.1122.6

What this data shows us is that Smith Rowe is touching the ball slightly less but, when he does, he is doing more with it (assuming, of course, that all forward passes are good passes). In each of the metrics in that table, Smith Rowe’s numbers are lower this season than they were last- except for in the last column, his passes are travelling forwards at a greater rate.

Again, this is a sign of economy and efficiency starting to define his game. We can break down this data even further by looking not just at passes but touches and where they are occurring. He is having far fewer touches, fewer in the defensive third but slightly more in the opponent’s penalty area.

All data per 90 minutes2020-212021-22
Touches54.747.1
Touches in the defensive third9.446.50
Touches in opposition penalty area3.063.38

On Sky Sports, Jamie Carragher purred over Smith Rowe’s dribbling ability and this is another area of his game that has really accelerated (in more ways than one) this season. It’s also part of the reason that I see him as more of a wide-forward than a number 10. The amount of dribbles he is attempting has really shot up.

All data per 90 minutes2020-212021-22
Attempted dribbles1.813.13
Successful dribbles0.442.38

In short, Smith Rowe is passing less, having fewer touches in his own defensive third but is shooting, passing forwards and dribbling more often. This is a player that is determined to improve his level of end-product and if he maintains these levels across the season and stays healthy, he will undoubtedly turn into one of Arsenal’s most productive players.

All data from FBRef

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