‘Croydon De Bruyne’ Emile Smith Rowe has rescued Arsenal’s lethargic midfield with his energy and vision – and with Mesut Ozil heading for the exit, he could save Mikel Arteta MILLIONS in the transfer market by filling his playmaker void for good
- Emile Smith Rowe scored his first FA Cup goal for Arsenal against Newcastle
- He has hit the ground running since his first Premier League start of the season
- The 20-year-old has inspired a turn around in form with four straight wins
- Now he could save Mikel Arteta money in the market with Mesut Ozil departing
If Mikel Arteta needed any further proof that the vibrancy of youth, rather than the lethargy of experienced players at Arsenal, is key to their chances of success this season, then performances from two players on Saturday provided a crucial warning.
Willian’s dire start to life at the club was once again on display as the 32-year-old was ineffective and wasteful, not for the first time in his Gunners career, lacking any sort of energy or drive to deliver quality to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as Newcastle held firm in the FA Cup third round tie.
Then just before the hour mark, Emile Smith Rowe was introduced and his performance demonstrated everything the Brazilian’s lacked, not only with the decisive opening goal in Arsenal’s 2-0 victory against Steve Bruce’s men after extra time but also the 20-year-old’s resilience.
Emile Smith Rowe’s latest performance in his rise at Arsenal saw him score against Newcastle
The midfielder was shown a red card in the third round FA Cup tie against Steve Bruce’s men
Disaster appeared to have struck when Smith Rowe was shown a red card by Chris Kavanagh for a challenge on Newcastle midfielder Sean Longstaff in the dying seconds of normal time, only for the referee to downgrade the decision to a caution after consulting the VAR pitch monitor.
But having been correctly offered the reprieve, he became the central figure in the game and elevated an insipid Arsenal into a side that came to life with his vibrancy, particularly once he had brilliantly collected Alexandre Lacazette’s flick-on and finished into the far corner off the inside of the post.
‘He’s becoming more and more important to the team and he showed it again when he came on,’ said Arteta of Smith Rowe after seeing his side record their fourth straight win across all competitions.
‘The personality that he plays with, we ask him to be more in the box and today he scored a really important goal for us.
But he was offered a reprieve when the referee downgraded his decision to a caution
Smith Rowe netted and inspired Mikel Arteta’s men into the fourth round of the competition
‘It was very impressive because is playing with a lot of personality, a lot of risk. He is playing in areas where he needs to make things happen and he has got the talent to do it.’
Those characteristics not only belong to a man whose electric performance was just the latest in his rise to first-team regular, but to one of world football’s most prominent stars who plies his trade at Manchester City.
Smith Rowe is often referred to as the ‘Croydon De Bruyne’ at Arsenal, with fellow youngster Bukayo Saka the latest player to reference it by posting ‘Thank you Kev’ on Instagram after their win against West Brom.
‘Some people have compared my playing style to Kevin De Bruyne’s and that’s a very nice compliment because he’s a great player and someone I really look up to,’ Smith Rowe said previously.
‘I’m trying to learn as much as I can from watching De Bruyne and working hard in training with all of the world-class players around me.’
Smith Rowe is called the ‘Croydon De Bruyne’ in reference to Manchester City’s Kevin (right)
Bukayo Saka was the latest player to reference this on Instagram after they beat West Brom
However, the lack of attacking verve among the established members of the midfield – especially given the absence of Thomas Partey through injury – has seen Smith Rowe become, on Saturday’s evidence, an indispensable figure in the starting XI, for the time being at least.
The Gunners were struggling to fathom chances and were languishing in 15th in the Premier League table before the midfielder earned his first top-flight start of the season in the 3-0 win against Chelsea last month.
He claimed an assist on Boxing Day thanks to Saka’s wonderful – or fortunate goal, depending on whether you think he meant it – but it was his regular occupation of the space in between the Blues’ midfield and defence which was of greatest benefit to the Gunners, allowing the full-backs more space out wide with the visitors concerned by his presence in the middle.
Those are the qualities that Arsenal have lacked in recent months but that Arteta praised ahead of the Europa League match against Dundalk last month, stating: ‘Emile is a player with an incredible talent.
Smith Rowe earned his first top-flight start against Chelsea and recorded an assist for Saka
‘He’s a player with very specific qualities to play in those pockets in that position as an attacking midfielder.
‘I really like him and he’s a player that if we are a little bit patient [with], we have a great player there.’
Smith Rowe then followed it up a week later by providing a tap in for Saka at the Hawthorns after a sublime touch with his left foot from Lacazette’s ball to take it in his stride.
Nevertheless, the size of the data sample is still rather modest to be making any sweeping conclusions, with Smith Rowe having featured in just seven matches for the Gunners this season.
Yet the evidence from a loan spell at Huddersfield last season suggests the foundations are there to be built on.
Smith Rowe impressed at Huddersfield last season to help them stay in the Championship
He made 13 starts and 19 appearances altogether in the Championship in 2019/20, scoring two goals – including a late one to secure victory against West Brom and maintain Huddersfield’s status in the second tier of English football – and recording as many assists.
‘Emile is a young boy who has the world at his feet,’ said Danny Cowley, who managed him at Huddersfield before he was sacked in July.
‘He has that ability to find space. He could find space in a telephone box. He speeds the play up for you and draws and commits. He’s just a really lovely player.
When responding to calls from supporters to give him more playing time, he said: ‘We have to be very protective of him which none of us like. I actually boo myself when I take him off, because it’s not something I want to do.’
That loan spell came after a groin injury prevented any development on loan at RB Leipzig
That risk-averse approach had to be considered given the amount of injuries that Smith Rowe saw his loan spell at Bundesliga side RB Leipzig in 2019 – where he played just 28 minutes – heavily affected by a groin injury.
Fitness issues also marred the start of this season, but now he appears to have demonstrated that should he be kept fit it is only a matter of time before he starts consistently delivering on his undoubted potential.
That is something that perhaps playmaker Mesut Ozil has been guilty of not accomplishing during his seven-and-a-half-year stay at the Gunners.
The German was left out of the Premier League and Europa League squads for the first half of the season, relegating him to social media specialist rather than creative force.
The 32-year-old referenced Smith Rowe as ‘the difference maker’ for his display at West Brom, but since then Ozil’s exit from the Emirates Stadium appears to have drawn closer.
Fenerbahce are reportedly close to sealing a move for the 2014 World Cup winner, and while it will come financially as a relief to the club, it is Arteta who will perhaps feel the greatest sense of comfort that Smith Rowe has emerged.
It is likely to ensure the Spaniard will not have to lose face following October’s decision to omit Ozil by not only keeping him but being forced to re-integrate him into the squad from February onwards.
Smith Rowe has eased the pressure on the Gunners after they omitted Mesut Ozil (left)
But the Gunners are still keen on a playmaker, with Norwich’s Emiliano Buendia heavily linked
Yet with or without Ozil, Arsenal’s pursuit of a playermaker this month is no secret either, with Norwich star Emiliano Buendia the most heavily-linked despite the Carrow Road’s club insistence that they will not sell.
Recent reports suggest Norwich value the Argentine at £40m, a figure the Gunners would be increasingly reluctant to fork out mid-season even without the effects of a financial slump caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
But Smith Rowe appears to have afforded Arteta and technical director Edu a few more days of the transfer window to pinpoint the correct target after recent profligate transfer windows, with Borussia Dortmund’s Julian Brandt and compatriot Julian Draxler at PSG also linked.
Smith Rowe’s most significant challenge appears to be being the financial answer this month as well as helping the club bring more money into the club at the end of the season by helping steer the club up the table and deep into cup competitions before they reassess their options in the position in the summer.
Ian Wright said last week he feared Arsenal could lose Smith Rowe if Willian and underperforming £72m winger Nicolas Pepe continued to start ahead of him.
Smith Rowe has shone with the likes of Nicolas Pepe (left) and Willian (right) underwhelming
But following the continuation of their poor displays, Smith Rowe – and Saka for that matter – would have lost little sleep over their place in the Premier League side being under threat after looking on at their more senior team-mates’ display before their own introduction.
‘He has to keep going like this, to improve day-by-day but he has a good mentality and that’s very important as well,’ midfielder Granit Xhaka said of Smith Rowe after the Newcastle win.
Perhaps now, with the Gunners cash-strapped and always keen to see academy products come off the conveyor belt and shine in the first-team, he may well just continue to see his stock rise.
He will look to save the club financially not only this month but by helping them climb the table
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