Emile Smith Quo | Arseblog … an Arsenal blog

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In the 2021-22 season, Emile Smith Rowe started 21 Premier League games for Arsenal and came on as a substitute on 12 occasions, playing 1,921 minutes in total. He jockeyed for position on the left wing with Gabriel Martinelli and it was a battle that, though reasonably even, he was winning.

Martinelli played 1,860 minutes in that campaign. Smith Rowe started on the left wing for the crunch game at St. James’ Park in May 2022 ahead of Martinelli. It was also the last time that Smith Rowe would start on the left flank for Arsenal. In the ensuing two seasons, Emile’s role has been reduced markedly, even when fit. So why?

I think the first thing to say is that I have always detected a little dispassion from Arteta to Smith Rowe, even when he was more of a feature in the team. Smith Rowe came into a team so bereft of natural number 10s that Lacazette and Willian were briefly repurposed for the role with predictably drab results.

Smith Rowe’s emergence into that position in late 2020 was a bit like being treated to a nice pizza after months of foraging for sticks and berries. However, that didn’t stop Arsenal from prioritising the signing of Martin Odegaard to play that main creator role. In isolation, that was not a particularly controversial choice either.

ESR was awarded a new contract in the summer of 2021 and took the number 10 shirt. Arteta’s comments at the time always struck me as a little aloof. ‘I prefer players who ask for more than maybe they can take but if they believe they can do it, don’t put a limit on it.’ Even at the time, the half admission that he didn’t feel Smith Rowe was ready for the number 10 shirt always caused me to cock an eyebrow north.

Smith Rowe was quickly moved to the left wing to allow Odegaard to take primacy. Of course, the Academy product underwent surgery after a promising 2021-22 season that saw him score 10 goals. That surgery made 2022-23 close to a write off for ESR but when he did return, it was clear something had changed and I wasn’t ever convinced it was totally owing to fitness.

Often Arteta appears to have challenged the player publicly to show his worth. Prior to the Carabao Cup tie away at Brentford in September, Arteta said, ‘Tomorrow he will have a big chance to show that he can play at this level and be a really important player for us…he needs to prove it like anybody else on the field that he deserves to play.’ Again, to me that felt ever so slightly pointed, especially since it was hardly the first public ultimatum flavoured comment from Arteta.

At the beginning of last season, Arteta also confirmed that he no longer sees Smith Rowe as an option on the left wing with Martinelli thriving and following the purchase of Leandro Trossard. ‘I think the best position for Emile is to play in those pockets, it’s not to play as a pure winger.’

Arteta’s purchasing history suggests he has never particularly held a candle for Smith Rowe; Leandro Trossard, Fabio Vieira and Kai Havertz have all arrived over the last two years and all in positions where Smith Rowe might have played himself. Even with his options narrowing, as the manager no longer considered him a wide player, he couldn’t get much of a look in as a ‘left eight’, which might be one of the most ‘available’ slots in the starting eleven.

Granit Xhaka’s departure, Fabio Vieira’s ankle surgery and Kai Havertz’s deployment as a striker did not move the needle for Smith Rowe when it came to his level of involvement. At the end of last season, Thomas Partey was almost literally wheeled into the team and the sound of his limbs creaking was close to audible in the stadium.

Creaking Thomas Partey with Rice as the left central midfielder was seen as a superior option to Rice at the base of the team with Smith Rowe as the left central midfielder. You can argue that my position is harsh in that incidence is you like, but, cumulatively speaking, the writing has been on the wall Life of Brian style for some time now. Too many things have happened that, in concert, indicate a lack of trust in the player.

All of which makes it slightly confusing that the club apparently so firmly rejected the idea of selling him last summer. It could be that Arteta saw enough talent to grant the player one last chance. It is also easy to forget that Havertz, Rice and Odegaard all enjoyed remarkably good seasons in terms of availability.

It would be understandable if Arteta was contingency planning for a world where one of those players ran into injury issues. There were three years remaining on Smith Rowe’s deal at that stage, so the contract situation did not demand a make-or-break decision. We have probably reached that stage now.

Arteta never really articulated why he no longer considered Smith Rowe an option on the left. Initially I felt his inclination to move inside and combine was better married with Kieran Tierney’s penchant for overlapping and providing the width. Zinchenko and Smith Rowe, I thought, were possibly unsuited.

But Zinchenko is no longer a starter and Arsenal have moved to a more ‘orthodox’ left-back model and, again, this did not suddenly make the player an option. I thought it might be a tactical decision but, the more I think of it, the more I suspect Arteta has misgivings over Smith Rowe’s athletic profile.

While it’s tempting to tie that observation to the player’s past admissions over some of his dietary habits, I think it’s more likely a mechanics issue. The player endured a long-standing issue in his groin and pelvic areas. I started to experience issues with my hips in my early 30s and it quickly ended my time as a full-back, I can tell you that for nothing.

Such issues / surgeries can impact your turning circle, which is so crucial for a wide player. There was clearly some emphasis on bulking Smith Rowe out in terms of body mass and he became notably broader post-surgery (I am not suggesting that is a bad thing, I am sure that was planned with the medical staff). And, of course, the body undergoes natural changes in one’s early 20s.

 

 

After ESR’s man of the match display against Luton in April, Arteta said, ‘He went into duels and won a lot of them and was thinking with that killer instinct to play forward and make things happen.’ We could well be in the realms of confirmation bias but that seemed to me to reveal Arteta’s potential frustrations with aspects of the player’s game.

He wasn’t asked about duels or the player’s intent to take risks as part of the question but clearly it was on Arteta’s mind. When I consider why Smith Rowe has fallen out of favour at Arsenal, I think my conclusion is that Arteta always harboured some doubts and given time and opportunity to buy other, similar players, he has done so.

That might be a harsh interpretation on my part, his demise could be purely physical. It might be that the surgery simply reduced what the player is capable of. Whatever the reason, I think the Arsenal Smith Rowe relationship will end this summer. Then again, I have said that before…

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