Arsenal’s return to form under Mikel Arteta has coincided with the development of Emile Smith Rowe.
It all changed on Boxing Day when Gabriel tested positive for COVID19. As a result fellow Brazilian’s David Luiz and Willian had to self-isolate due to being in close contact with their colleague.
With Thomas Partey also out injured, Arteta was short of midfield options going into the game against Chelsea.
The easy option would have been to go to a midfield of Granit Xhaka, Mohamed Elneny and Dani Ceballos and stick with 433. The alternative option was to play 20-year-old Emile Smith Rowe for the first time of the season in the Premier League this season and go to 4231.
Arteta went with the Smith Rowe option and – whether by luck or judgment – the decision paid off as Arsenal beat Chelsea 3-1; and it could have been 6!
Smith Rowe has now started the last 5 league games in row, with Arsenal winning 4. He also came off the bench to score the winner against Newcastle in the FA Cup.
His link up with Bukayo Saka has transformed Arsenal.
With Saka replacing Nicholas Pepe on the right hand side and Smith Rowe replacing Willian in the middle, our play is more inventive, quicker and direct.
We re now passing round corners, finding team mates in space, and getting Saka one on one with full backs.
Arsenal’s improvement is partly to do with Arteta moving to 4231 – which gives us that extra creativity in the final 3rd – and the introduction of Smith Rowe.
The easy option would have been to put Willian straight back into the 10 role following his return, but Arteta stuck with the young Englishman whose performances did not warrant being dropped.
Arteta has come in for criticism this year for apparently “hating youth”. His critics point to the lack of game time William Saliba has had, as well as Joe Willock, Reiss Nelson and Eddie Nketiah.
But the truth is if a player comes in and performs well, Arteta will continue giving them a chance.
Saka is proof of this.
When you compare Saka and Nelson, the former is levels ahead of the later who has struggled to kick on.
Likewise compare Willock to Smith Rowe.
Both men have had chances over the last 18 months, but Willock has not reached the levels of Smith Rowe in the Premier League.
Finally we have Nketiah and Gabriel Martinelli.
It is easy to forget that the Brazilian is still just 19-years-old. Martinelli has outperformed Nketiah in the 18 months he has been at the club – despite spending nearly 12 months out injured. He is 2 years younger!
You can not give every player that comes through Hale End the chance. Players need to show they deserve that chance on the training ground; and then back it up with performances on the pitch.
Saka, Smith Rowe and Martinelli have done so, Nelson, Willock & Nketiah have not.
It would not surprise me if Nelson, Willock and Nketiah are all moved on over the next 2 transfer windows.
The trio would raise Arsenal close to £60million in much needed transfer fees.
It is important not to hype up Smith Rowe too much, however. He has started just 6 Premier League games in his career.
Talk of him replacing Mesut Ozil and being the “Croydon de Bruyne” is premature. He needs to become the best Smith Rowe that he can.
But his performances will ensure he is considered for selection for every game between now and the end of the season – although he will be due to be rotated out soon to give him a little rest.
And moving forward to next season he could save the club millions.
Talk was that Arsenal were looking to sign both Julian Brandt and Emi Buendía to replace Ozil; giving Arteta 2 options at 10.
What Smith Rowe has done through his performances is force his way into the equation. We now no longer need 2 10s. Smith Rowe can fill one of the roles. Most likely providing cover for a more senior, developed option.
What Smith Rowe’s performances does do is highlight even more how much of a bad transfer Willian is.
Willian and Smith Rowe are basically the same player. Both capable of playing anywhere in the 3 behind a striker as well as deeper.
Football and transfers are easy in hindsight, and hindsight shows that we should not have given a 3-year deal to Willian with Smith Rowe waiting in the wings.
The flip side to that is Smith Rowe had been out on loan and then injured over pre-season, so maybe Arteta had just not seen enough of him?
His development is going to be exiting to watch.