Arsenal’s Emile Smith Rowe at the vanguard of pressing revival after Mikel Arteta unleashes young gun
After what seemed like a slide that Mikel Arteta could not stop, suddenly Arsenal find themselves in the relatively sunlit uplands of 11th position in the Premier League, preparing to return to the FA Cup this club so adores with renewed energy and enthusiasm.
What changed? The most obvious route is to look for the new faces in the team and ascribe the credit to them, all the easier when there is a clear differentiation between Arsenal before and after the addition of one player. In this case, that is Emile Smith Rowe.
Of course it is never quite so simple but the difference between Arsenal pre and post-‘Croydon De Bruyne’ is stark. Arteta’s side had taken two points from the seven games before December 26. They have taken maximum points since.
Smith Rowe’s own individual output in that time has been very encouraging. In wins against Chelsea and West Bromwich Albion he laid on assists, the latter seeing him show smart movement to dart in behind the defense and square for Bukayo Saka. He needs only one more to tie Willian, the man who may have taken the attacking midfield berth on Boxing Day but for illness, as the Gunners’ leading assist provider in the Premier League this season.
If his form and minutes hold strong it should be easy to overtake the Brazilian. In three games he created six chances, as many as the combined return of Granit Xhaka, Mohamed Elneny and Joe Willock. With the sizeable caveat that his sample size remains exceptionally small he creates 2.34 chances per 90. No other Arsenal player creates more than one.
There may be those who argue it is unfair to compare the creative work of Xhaka or even Willock to Smith Rowe because the former duo simply aren’t that sort of footballer. And yet that was to a great extent what they were tasked with being in the lull that Arsenal endured midway through the season. Opposing teams had worked out that Arteta’s side would try to overload them through Kieran Tierney, Bukayo Saka and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on the left flank; when that avenue was closed off the burden fell on deep-lying central midfielders to do a bit of everything.
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What Arsenal needed was a 10, someone who could link the midfield with the attack, the right flank with the left. It didn’t help Arteta that he had taken the decision to sideline Mesut Ozil but equally he did himself no favors experimenting with more ill-fitting options such as Willock or Alexandre Lacazette. It was not just that he had frozen out one creator but that there was another on the fringes of the squad who was being confined to the Europa League.
The impact of a true playmaker was immediate. During their seven game woes Arsenal had averaged 20.5 open play crosses per game, by far the most in the league, leading to a bizarre running debate with the manager in press conferences over whether he wanted his team to lob the ball into the box so often. In the last three that number has almost halved to the 16th most in the top flight.
In the same period their expected goals from open play have risen from 0.77 per 90 minutes to 1.84, a tally bettered only by Manchester City in that period. Where once 1.6 percent of their shots had led to goals it is now 17 percent.
It seemed all the more curious that Arteta was not prepared to trust Smith Rowe when he was so enamored with his technique. In a memorable interview before the end of last season he visibly glowed when discussing the youngster, then on loan at Huddersfield. He was equally enamored by the youngster’s pre-season, one that came to a frustratingly early end in a match against QPR where he jumped to compete for a high ball and came down awkwardly on his shoulder.
CBS Sports has learned that Smith Rowe was then unable to train for five weeks before needing a further three to simply get back up to speed. Even when he returned to action with Steve Bould’s Under-23 side his heavily bruised shoulder gave him discomfort, keeping him out of the senior squad until November 26.
Arteta himself admitted that he had doubts over whether Smith Rowe was ready to enter the fray against Chelsea. “You have question marks of course because he hasn’t done it at that level in that caliber of game but you see the potential and I really liked – and we really like as a coaching staff – what we were seeing,” he said.
“We decided to make the decision, it worked and then he earned the right to play the next game, he did it again and he earned the right to play the following game.”
Smith Rowe fills a position Arsenal have known needs strengthening, that creative midfielder who can be played either as a number 10 or deeper in a midfield three. Technical director Edu confirmed last month that they were looking for a “central creative figure” and they have interest in, among others, Real Madrid’s Isco, Marcel Sabitzer of RB Leipzig and Norwich playmaker Emiliano Buendia.
CBS Sports revealed earlier this week that the latter would push to join Arsenal if they formalize their interest but the Gunners would find it extremely difficult to match Norwich’s $54million (£40million) price tag. The $160million short-term loan they received from the Bank of England this week speaks to the financial challenges they are facing and they still need to trim back a squad that includes such unwanted players as Mesut Ozil, Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Shkodran Mustafi.
Arsenal want to sign another creator to compliment Smith Rowe but not replace him entirely. Before Christmas conversations had taken place over a possible loan move to a Premier League, leading Championship or European club. Those were swiftly nixed after his impressive run of games. Whilst Edu and Arteta scour for a new signing, Smith Rowe will carry the playmaking burden.
To which the question might be, why not play the legendary creator and possessor of the No.10 shirt you already have in your squad? Mesut Ozil’s departure, which could come this month as he mulls interest from Fenerbahce and DC United, will end what has been an awful few years for the club and their best-paid player but Arsenal’s recent revival with a central playmaker naturally prompts questions about the decision to exile the other option.
Yet Smith Rowe’s value has not come solely in possession. Though comparing pressing statistics across seasons is a challenge in these unique circumstances it is notable that, on the defensive side of the ball, according to fbref.com, Smith Rowe makes the fourth most pressures of any Arsenal player in the Premier League. Ozil was 13th among team-mates in the 2019-20 campaign. The club’s own internal data is understood to show that no player covered more distance in his minutes on the pitch than the youngster.
“They were reenergising to the team and were pushing the team into a different direction and a different rhythm.”
Arteta on Smith Rowe and Martinelli
Throughout his youth career Smith Rowe, not necessarily the most physically imposing of midfielders, has made a deliberate attempt to develop his pressing, knowing that a modern creative midfielder will no longer be judged solely on what he does on the ball.
At RB Leipzig he was taken aback by the ferocity with which Ralf Rangnick’s side harassed their opponents – even though an injury to his pubic bone significantly curtailed his ability to kick a ball he learned a great deal from his crash course from the high priest of pressing. Huddersfield may not have had athletes comparable with Tyler Adams, Timo Werner and Dayot Upamecano but conversely their then manager Danny Cowley’s commitment to the press meant ensuring his squad had a strong grounding in the fundamentals.
Of course one man does not a functioning pressing system make but add Gabriel Martinelli, another relentless youngster with a point to prove after injury, and suddenly Arsenal had the intensity that was so evidently lacking against the likes of Leeds and Everton.
Arteta agrees with the suggestion that his young tyros have inspired his veterans. “The right word is enthusiasm,” he said. “That needs to flourish sometimes in a team when it is a little bit concerned and has some fear because of the results and the pressure.
“They were really helpful, they were reenergizing to the team and were pushing the team into a different direction and a different rhythm but as well the young players need the solidity, maturity and experience the senior players bring. It’s a good combination.”
Of course it is only three games that Smith Rowe has played. These are promising early flourishes in a league where he is still finding his footing. There will be moments of difficulty and disappointment, particularly for a 20-year-old playing in a position where even the very best do not carve out regular roles until later in their career.
It will certainly help him that he has two fellow youngsters next to him in the attacking midfield trident and that both Martinelli and Saka are somewhat more advanced in their own progression from the youth setup to first team regular. Equally that gives Arteta a blueprint to manage Smith Rowe’s transition successfully.
“Bukayo is doing what he is doing because last year in certain moments he was managed. He was changing to different positions and people would say ‘why, he needs to stick to one position?’ No. He needs to get richer in his understanding of the game. We need to find out why he cannot play on the right. ‘It’s always the left and he needs to play left-back’. No. He can play as an attacking midfielder.
“Then we will see the cohesion that he finds in the team, the position that he can be a game winner which he has the ability to do, where is that position where we are missing a kind of player like him.
“With Emile it’s a little bit simpler with his position but also with his game time, we have to manage that. The same with Gabi.”
What is clear is that it is worth working through those inevitable difficulties that will come with this young attacking trident because when they click as they have in the past three games, they look to be Arsenal’s present as much as their future.