Last summer, even with a seemingly re-energised and malaria free Pierre Emerick Aubameyang in the squad, it was obvious that Arsenal needed to score more goals. Their goal threat has sagged since the departure of Arsene Wenger. Contrarily, their attacking efficiency was nixed by the muddled signing of two £50m+ striker signings in a period of six months.
Arsenal exacerbated the error with an even more expensive error in the summer of 2019 when they spent £72m on Nicolas Pepe. Not even a combination of two of these three expensively acquired attackers worked on a consistent basis. A further knot was added by the absolutely dismal signing of Willian on a free transfer, which was a bit like getting rid of a spider in your living room by burning your entire house down.
In the 2020-21 season, Arsenal scored a meagre 55 goals in the Premier League, the same as 11th placed Aston Villa and seven fewer than Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United. Even before the exile of Aubameyang it was obvious that a lot of organic improvement was required from an emerging crop of young attackers.
Arsenal managed 61 goals in the 2021-22 season, an improvement but one put in the shade by Tottenham’s superior offering of 69, which was undoubtedly the decisive factor in them finishing two points and one place above the Gunners. Much of Arsenal’s relative failure is (rightly) framed by the Aubameyang departure, the failure to land an alternative in January and the failure of Alex Lacazette to offer more goal scoring threat than your average centre-half.
Lost in this mire of frustration and regret is the fact that the younger attackers- Martinelli, Smith Rowe and Saka- delivered in exactly the way that Arsenal required. You might even throw Eddie Nketiah into that company with five goals in eight Premier League starts. The table below shows you how Martinelli, Smith Rowe and Saka stepped up to the end-product plate in a pleasing way.
|2021-22 Goals per 90||2020-21 Gp90||2021-22 Assists per 90||2020-21 Ap90||2021-22 Goals + Assists per 90||2020-21 G+Ap90|
Smith Rowe and Saka have each delivered a significant rise in terms of overall end-product. Martinelli’s has dipped slightly though the data is a little noisy due to sample size. In 2020-21 he only started seven Premier League games due to injury, this season he started 21- that’s 589 PL minutes versus 1,860. (Eddie Nketiah’s data for next season will be interesting for similar reasons- assuming he earns greater game time).
The player I really want to focus on here is Emile Smith Rowe. Smith Rowe enjoyed an excellent campaign which, I think, has been lost in the weeds for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because fitness concerns and the form of Martinelli meant that he was in and out of the starting eleven during the second half of the season.
Not unrelated, his end-product was frontloaded as a result, so his progress enervated slightly. Nine of his 11 goals in 2021-22 came before New Year’s Day. This was mostly due to fitness and the complementary emergence of Martinelli following Aubameyang’s departure but there was also likely an element of regression in there too.
His 10 Premier League goals came from an XG of 5.8- he ran a little hot and when you do that, it usually comes with a tariff later down the line. However, a lot of the underlying data shows you exactly why he leapt from two goals in 18 starts in 2020-21 to 10 goals in 21 PL starts in 2021-22 (he also scored in the Carabao Cup, bringing his tally to 11 overall).
|Shots p90||Shots on target p90||Average shot distance||% of shots on target p90||Dribbles att p90|
We see a big jump in shot data- more than a shot more per 90 minutes compared to last season and a big jump on shot accuracy. We also see a big jump in dribbles per 90 too as his game has become far more direct. Some of this will, I am sure, have been driven by conversations with his coaches last summer- especially as he signed a new deal and requested the famous number 10 shirt into the bargain.
A lot is also driven by a change in function. When he burst into the team during the second half of the 2020-21 season, he operated largely as a number 10 where his role was to connect Arsenal’s midfield to attack. Now Arsenal have Martin Odegaard in that position, almost every minute Smith Rowe played in 2021-22 was on the left of the attack.
Under Arteta, the majority of the goal threat has come from the wide forwards. This is partially due to the fact that neither Lacazette nor Aubameyang totally fitted Arteta’s juego del posicion model. Smith Rowe scored more goals with Auba through the middle than Lacazette. When Lacazette links play, he tends to whip the ball out to the right, where Saka plays.
Auba was better at switching the ball to the left flank, where Smith Rowe would be lurking, as we see from the clip embedded below from the win over Aston Villa in October. We saw this hook-up work quite nicely for Aubameyang’s goal against Spurs in September too.
Smith Rowe really specialised in two types of goal this season. He became very good at making the late, third-man run into the penalty area to sweep up the bits and pieces in the penalty area. His goal against Tottenham is a good example of this (goals against Tottenham are always the best examples). This goal away at Leicester in October is a further illustration.
The other type of finish he specialised in was the Pires type goal, where he would cut in from the left and curl the ball along the floor into the far corner, as we saw with this goal against Brentford in February. In a wider position, Smith Rowe was often allowed to join the attack at a later stage by sneaking in unnoticed from the left. In the purely goal scoring sense, it is difficult to resist the comparison with Robert Pires’ trademark finish.
Whether Smith Rowe can maintain and continue his goal scoring feats will depend on a few factors. Can he gel with whoever Arsenal’s number 9 is going to be next season, would be the first question. It could also be that his goals dried up a little in the second half of the season because opponents became wise to his movements.
The competition with Martinelli for a left-sided berth is extremely healthy for both players too. The main question though, to my mind revolves around his fitness. Smith Rowe has enjoyed two really strong half-seasons now- he has to show he has physicality to extrapolate over that over an entire campaign.