Sunday, July 21, 2024

Examining Emile Smith Rowe worries

Morning all.

Mikel Arteta will meet the press this morning ahead of our game against Southampton tomorrow. Obviously there will be questions about how we dropped points against West Ham, and perhaps with more time to reflect he might have different answers from the ones he gave immediately after the match. Maybe not, he’s usually pretty spot on at identifying the issues, but no doubt he’s re-watched the game in more detail, so there might be something.

I am hoping there’s a question about Emile Smith Rowe, because his lack of involvement on Sunday was a bit of a worry to me. Let me clear about something – because you have to do that these days when people take snippets of things and present them as opinion or fact – I’m not writing him off or saying he’s done and dusted at Arsenal. Just that the fact he didn’t get onto the pitch in a game we badly needed to win concerned me.

Although he made his comeback after surgery in the North London derby on January 15th, there was a little setback, and he got 8 minutes in the 4-0 win over Everton around 6 weeks later, his first serious minutes came in the Bournemouth game when he came on for Leandro Trossard who picked up an injury in the 22nd minute. He lasted 47 minutes before being replaced by Reiss Nelson, and in that time he provided an assist for Thomas Partey to score Arsenal’s first goal.

Even beyond the fact Nelson smashed home that glorious winner, you can understand why a substitute got subbed, given how little he had played. So, let’s examine the games since and his involvement.

Fulham 0-3 Arsenal – Minutes: 0 – This was all about the return of Gabriel Jesus, but the fact Bukayo Saka was taken off on 72′ (for Nelson), meant there was at least an opportunity to give him minutes. Smith Rowe has played on the right before. Fabio Vieira replaced Gabriel Martinelli on 77 minutes, but it would make sense that Arteta showed some caution because putting on two subs who are coming back from surgery might have been a risk.

Arsenal 4-1 Crystal Palace – Minutes: 8 – I was there for this one, and I remember there being some sense of tension when Palace scored, but we made it 4-1 in the 74th minute and it was comfy again. Smith Rowe replaced Martinelli in the 83rd minute.

Arsenal 4-1 Leeds – Minutes: 5 – Again that 3-1 thing was a nag, even if that game was comfortable in general. As soon as it went 4-1, Smith Rowe replaced Martin Odegaard for the last 5 minutes + injury time.

Liverpool 2-2 Arsenal – Minutes: 0 – Perhaps in hindsight the manager might think using Smith Rowe for Odegaard rather than Jakub Kiwior and going to a back five might have been more useful, but I can completely understand his thinking despite the fact that sub didn’t work. It was intense stuff at Anfield, and throwing in a player with scant minutes to his name might have been a risk. Then again, Kiwior had barely played either, but as the defender to help us try and hold onto a one goal lead, you could make a better case for it in terms of how Arteta was thinking.

West Ham 2-2 Arsenal – Minutes: 0 – This is the one where I feel the game state was perfect for the Smith Rowe we know. 2-2, we weren’t at our best, and we have last season’s second highest goalscorer on the bench. Except he stayed there. I’m sure he did some warming up but when TV showed the bench in the 74th minute and he was pictured there with his tracksuit on, that told you a compelling story.

We took goalscorers like Gabriel Jesus, Martin Odegaard and Gabriel Martinelli off, and tried to win the game with players who don’t have any great track record themselves. Eddie Nketiah for Odegaard told you the manager wanted another striker on the pitch, but who was going to create the chances? Would 10 or 15 minutes of Smith Rowe – a player who got us goals off the bench in the past – not have made more sense than one or two of the changes we saw? That’s when I started to worry.

Now, let’s try and look at it a different way. I’ve had chats with people who have compared Smith Rowe’s situation with that of Martinelli after he came back from his knee injury. Arteta was extremely cautious with him, to the point that it raised speculation about how the manager felt about the player. Some time down the line, we can see that was basically putting 2 and 2 together and getting 5. So, it’s certainly possible this is precautionary to some extent, but the difference for me is that Martinelli was not as established as Smith Rowe. As I said, he was last season’s second highest goalscorer, and when not struggling with injury, pretty much a fixture in the team.

I talked about ‘the Smith Rowe we know’, and maybe the Smith Rowe we’ve got now isn’t quite that yet. The injury he had surgery for had plagued him for his entire career, so it’s possible the recovery from that has been slower and more difficult than we know or understand. It’s not as if Arteta is especially forthcoming when it comes to the details of a player’s physical fitness.

Nevertheless, it’s hard not to have some concerns. He is training every day. He’s fit enough to be on the bench, so when he doesn’t get on in a game we need to win, it’s the kind of thing football fans will have conversations about. Arteta has, in the past, spoken about Smith Rowe’s need to push himself into contention in a way he hasn’t really with other players. Maybe he’s looking to challenge him, to get the best out of him, and I hope he does because his talent is undeniable.

And that is what makes his absence so notable.

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