When Emile Smith Rowe was announced as part of the starting line-up on Tuesday evening at Nottingham Forest, I wasn’t the only Arsenal fan who cocked an eyebrow in surprise. Like a lot of Arsenal fans, I found the news to be pleasantly surprising too.
So much has happened- or, perhaps more accurately, not happened for Smith Rowe since his last Premier League start almost two years ago that I had begun to write off the idea of him getting serious minutes for the club again. (Correction: Smith Rowe started against Sheffield United earlier in the season).
Typically, over the last 12-18 months, if Smith Rowe is subbed into a game at all, it tends to be when the game is dead (whether in Arsenal’s favour or their opponent’s favour). While he got a healthy run out against Crystal Palace last weekend, the score was 3-0 in Arsenal’s favour and the game was very much in a hospice ward surrounded by chaplains.
However, on reflection one can observe a small pattern emerging in who Arteta selects to play the fabled ‘left eight’ role in certain types of away matches. Fabio Vieira was a surprise starter in the position at Goodison Park in September as Arsenal aimed to keep the ball on the ground at all costs against Dyche’s team of atomic super mutants.
At Brentford, Leandro Trossard started there with Kai Havertz on the bench, while Emile Smith Rowe got the nod ahead of Havertz at the City Ground. This tells us two things, I think. Against the deepest of deep block defences away from home with teams who have significant height in defence, Arteta considers Havertz better deployed from the bench in favour of a more controlling, possession-based presence.
It also tells us that the incumbents for this particular role have yet to pull up any trees. Vieira has been injured for a while now but has been inconsistent in his Arsenal career so far (albeit his appearances have not been regular enough to dismiss his form entirely).
Trossard does not really appear suited to the ‘left eight’ role at all and while there have been pleasing signs of life with Havertz in recent months, he is still not considered indispensable. All of which potentially opens a door for Smith Rowe for more regular inclusion. Though I always felt that if Arteta truly had faith in Smith Rowe, one or both of the Vieira and Trossard signings would not have happened.
It has been so difficult to assess why Smith Rowe has fallen so far from favour since returning from various injuries that we can’t really put it down to his on-pitch performance due to the small sample size of data available in that respect. We have to assume that Arteta and the coaching staff don’t think he has been buttering any parsnips in training, whether that be down to fitness or form, we don’t really know.
For the supporters, that has made this situation particularly frustrating. Smith Rowe is a popular player and, as far as we are concerned, he was a regular member of the team got injured, recovered (we think?) and we have scarcely seen him since.
He has also been ruled out of the wide left position that he had made such a strong claim for a couple of seasons ago. It is easy to forget that when Arsenal travelled to St. James’ Park in May 2022 for a must win game at Newcastle, Smith Rowe was preferred to Martinelli on the left. He hasn’t played there for Arsenal ever since.
Arteta has not been publicly forthcoming about the rime and reason for that. My suspicion (based only on total speculation on my part) is that the reasons are physical. While it is true that he is a very different profile from Martinelli, so too is Trossard as a left winger and that hasn’t been viewed as an impediment to the Belgian playing there. While I would stop short of pitching my own physical level with that of a Premier League footballer (!) I stopped playing at the age of 34 due to pelvic / hip issues.
I stopped playing because the pain became too much but, in truth, I basically stopped playing aged 32 because I had the turning circle of a man 20 years my senior. Smith Rowe has suffered issues in a similar area and I suspect it might have affected his ‘turning circle’ and when you play on the extremities of the pitch, your turning circle is important.
If my incredibly amateur, speculative diagnosis were to be true, that may also impact the level of trust Arteta has had in him to play at all. Smith Rowe has always struggled for off-ball intensity though it is difficult to parse how much that was down to a long-standing groin / pelvic issue given the length of time he had been managing it.
Tackling is an incredibly basic way of measuring off ball intensity and the sample sizes around Smith Rowe have dropped to negligible levels of late (and Arsenal’s possession count has increased, reducing the need for tackling). But for the sake of rigour, according to FBRef, Smith Rowe attempted 0.88 tackles per 90 in 2020-21, which dropped to 0.66 per 90 in 2021-22 and to 0.55 per 90 in 2022-23.
This season that has gone up to 1.25 per 90. Again, the data and the sample sizes are not voluminous enough to be totally definitive but in lieu of seeing him train, it could be that the vague outline of a story emerges in those numbers. Whether or not the door truly remains open for Smith Rowe at Arsenal will depend on a few other external factors.
For a start, while Vieira and Trossard haven’t exactly taken the ‘left eight when we want more of a ball player’ role off the table, the return of Thomas Partey potentially knocks ESR back down the pecking order. However, Partey’s Arsenal career really ought to be in its dying embers for a number of reasons. Much as I would like to keep Jorginho, I also suspect he might be tempted by more regular football in Italy next season.
Giving up on Smith Rowe would necessitate buying a replacement with at least one other midfield signing probably required in the summer. That said, Smith Rowe will have two years remaining on his current contract come June. If Arsenal want to stand by their man, it’s probably not going to be enough to not sell him, they are probably going to have to commit to him long-term.
We have gone past the stage of a casual relationship, it might not be as stark as divorce or marry but it isn’t far off. I know that I would love nothing more than for Smith Rowe to turn his Arsenal career around and set it back on track.
I think he is a really talented player and, perhaps speaking slightly dispassionately, he contributes towards the homegrown quota and I think Arsenal probably have more urgent things to do with their money in the summer than to replace him.
Not knowing the full reasons behind his recent exile has been frustrating. It might well have been entirely for physical reasons. I have to say that I felt events had gone on a little too long for that to be the (sole) cause. Whether Tuesday evening was the beginning of a revival or a geyser in the desert remains to be seen- but I know what I am rooting for.
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