Had you asked me 12 months ago where Arsenal need to strengthen, the left hand side would have been near the top of the list.
Bukayo Saka had spent much of his Arsenal career on the side, but had just begun to play ahead of Nicolas Pepe on the right hand side.
We had seen Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang moved out there in an attempt to accomodate both him and Alexandre Lacazette, but it was a move that gave us goals at the sacrifice of creativity.
Gabriel Martinelli was a prospect but was injured, and I questioned whether he was a winger or a striker – and Mikel Arteta and his coaching team had begun spending a lot of time during his rehabilitation getting him to focus on playing through the middle.
Emile Smith Rowe had performed well in Arsenal’s Europa League group fixturesbut did not start any of Arsenal’s league matches in October or November.
The left hand side was clearly a problem area.
12 months on and I am entirely comfortable with the two men competing to play there.
For much of the season, Smith Rowe has been one of the first names on the teamsheet.
He got his chance as a number 10 on Boxing Day 2020 and has never looked back.
The arrival of Martin Odergaard saw him compete for the central position throughout the back end of last season. Then this season he was shifted out left to accomodate the Norwegian.
That move has seen him score 6 goals in 10 games from the left hand side – as well as 3 assists.
As a youngster, he was veyr much a winger. Although the feeling was he would end up as a 10 as his career progressed.
Smith Rowe reminds me of Robert Pires.
Pires had to play left due to the presence of Dennis Bergkamp in the squad.
Playing on the left wing, Pires was a danger cutting in on his right foot. He would also spend a lot of time inside left adding extra creativity in the middle and freeing up space for Ashley Cole to bomb into.
Smith Rowe is cut from a similar cloth.
Whilst he might be playing on the left, he spends a lot of time more centrally combining with Odergaard and Saka – who also comes in from his right hand side position.
The space left by Smith Rowe is then taken by Keiran Tierney. The Scotsman then provides the width and has the space to run into and delivery his crosses.
Then backing up – and competing with – Smith Rowe is now Gabriel Martinelli.
It feels like the attempt to convert the Brazilian to a striker has been put on hold; potentially indefinitely.
Martinelli plays a bit more on the edge in comparison to Smith Rowe.
He does not tend to get involved as much in the build up, is not as good a passer but is more direct.
The Brazilian has 2 assists and a goal in the last 4 games.
Smith Rowe and Martinelli compliment each other well.
They are similar enough that Arteta does not need to change the shape or style of the team to accomodate one or the other. Whilst distinct enough that they both offer opposing full backs a different challenge.
At 21 and 20-years-old, the pair will only improve. And will drive each other forward as they compete for a place in Arsenal’s starting XI.
Both player is also versatile enough that they provide cover elsewhere – Smith Rowe is Odergaard’s cover at 10 and Martinelli is an option upfront.
Add Tierney and Nuno Taveras and we should not need to be investing in our left hand side for some years.
Focus now switches to the right hand side.
Nicolas Pepe is clearly out of favour with Arteta, with Saka the first name on the team sheet.
Next summer what we need to do is find a right winger who is happy and capable of covering Saka.
That would then also free up Saka a bit more to play centrally if Odergaard is out – either Smith Rowe or Saka would drop inside to cover the Norwegian with their corresponding understudy taking their place on the wing.
The alternative would be to sign Odergaard some competition in the middle and then he moves out wide to cover Saka (or Martinelli switches across).
It is probably too early for the likes of Omari Hutchinson or Salah Oulad M’Hand to step up into a prominent first team position next year, although I would expect both to be involved in the League Cup and begin appearing more on the bench.
Arsenal have been running their eye over American Dantouma Traore in the last 2 weeks.
The 17-year-old plays for KSE owned Colorado Rapids so a transfer is likely. But he would probably need at least a couple of years in Arsenal’s youth team before he is ready step up; taking into account he is currently on loan to Colorado Springs Switchbacks who play in the American second tier.
It is likely Traore will sign for the club, but as he does not turn 18 until June he will be unable to join up with the club until then.
A deal to keep an eye on could be Raheem Sterling.
The Englishman has struggled to reach the heights of 2019/20 when he socred 31 goals for Manchester City and has been in and out of the league leaders starting XI this year.
At 27-years-old he might be ready for a return to London and a new challenge.
Sterling would come straight into Arsenal’s starting XI – probably on the left hand side. This would then see Martinelli shift over to the right as Saka’s cover.
Either way, a blog which started with me saying I was happy with our left hand side has concluded that we should sign a left winger!
Saka, Odergaard, Sterling, Smith Rowe, Martinelli. I would be happy with that going into next season.
I’d pass on Sterling. There are so few premium strikers right now – they’ll cost a fortune. That’s where Arsenal need to commit their resources – not on more wide players. Big transfer fees and likely high salaries too, in order to secure someone that will enable this team to take the next step.
Vlahovic would have been perfect but it seems Arsenal’s stint out of UCL has taken its toll on appeal – he doesn’t want to come.
There are others though – the Athletic did a nice piece on it.