Emile Smith Rowe might have been forgiven for thinking he was cursed. Arsenal were playing QPR in a friendly at their London Colney training ground, 11 days before the start of this season, and given the club had discouraged suitors for a loan spell it seemed time to stake his claim for a regular Premier League spot. He shone until, battling to win a header, he was caught in mid-air and came down nastily on a shoulder. The immediate worry was of a dislocation and that a career of rare promise would have to wait even longer to ignite.
Four months on there is evidence to suggest Smith Rowe is the missing piece in Mikel Arteta’s jigsaw. Arsenal have always thought the world of their 20-year-old academy product and there was relief when his injury proved less serious than feared. He returned to action in November and, since Arteta trusted him in the No 10 position when Chelsea visited on Boxing Day, has changed the dimension of a previously stodgy attack.
“I think the quality he is showing now is what we saw when he was developing in the younger age groups: very direct, always looked forward, had a lovely touch, very clever in possession,” says Steve Morrow, Arsenal’s former head of academy recruitment. “He was always full of energy and work rate, and came alive on the ball.”
Arsenal’s second goal at West Brom last Saturday, which expedited a third win in three since Smith Rowe’s arrival in the starting lineup, was a case in point. Their buildup was circumspect until he received possession from Dani Ceballos 20 yards inside the hosts’ half, facing away from goal. But a deft first-time pass to Bukayo Saka, accompanied by a rapid burst down the inside-right channel, offered clear instructions that it was time to go through the gears. Two passes and four seconds later the ball was back with Smith Rowe, who could square for Saka to tap in. It was a coruscating move and the kind of goal that, as recently as three weeks ago, Arteta’s side could simply not have scored.
“Team looks good with a No 10 like Emile Smith Rowe – the difference maker,” tweeted the exiled Mesut Özil. Taken at face value he was right, although the identity of the No 10 was more important than the fact of fielding one. When Smith Rowe was replaced by Joe Willock he had covered more ground, about 10km, than anyone else on the pitch. It was a similar story against Chelsea and, three days afterwards, in the win at Brighton: Smith Rowe has the industry and physicality to convince Arteta that, unlike Özil, he is far from a luxury.
It has been a long road here for Smith Rowe, even though nobody has seriously questioned his potential since he joined Arsenal aged 10. There have been ups, downs and doubts, such as the period when he was frustrated at a lack of starts – amid stiff competition from players such as Jadon Sancho and Phil Foden – for the England side that would later win the Under-17 World Cup and wondered whether a change of club would improve his fortunes. Arsenal worked hard to convince him to sign his scholarship; all parties were rewarded when morsels of senior action began to come his way and, since his debut in September 2018, the question has been how quickly he can make his mark consistently.
“He’s probably missed up to a year with injuries, otherwise I do think he would have got there earlier,” Morrow says. Growing pains hindered what could have been a breakthrough loan at RB Leipzig, and Huddersfield managed him carefully during a more successful switch to the Championship. An extended lay-off in 2020-21 would have compounded the stop-start nature of his early career but he is now primed for a shot at matching his international teammates’ domestic achievements.
“You have question marks of course, because he hasn’t done it at that level, in that calibre of game,” Arteta said about his feelings when pitching Smith Rowe into a side that had taken two points from its previous seven league matches. “But you see the potential and we really liked, as a coaching staff, what we were seeing.
“He needs to establish himself here, he needs to be settled here, he needs to really find his role and position in the team and the club. He needs to have trust in himself, because we really believe in him, and go forward: no fear, go for it, because he has the quality.”
Plenty of clubs would have happily taken Smith Rowe in January had his pathway remained uncertain, but there is a sense he will not let his chance at Arsenal slip now. “What you’re seeing now is a strong, energetic, robust player who can cope with the physical demands,” Morrow says. Smith Rowe’s mentality has always impressed, too: he is not the loudest or most demonstrative and maintains a relatively low public profile, but absorbs information rapidly and has been fuelled further by the clear confidence of Arteta and his staff.
It means the pressure on Arteta to deliver a new playmaker in this transfer window is lessened, although they were always more than one creative player short and Smith Rowe cannot be expected to start twice a week between now and May. At least it no longer seems outlandish that the solution to their most nagging issue was in plain sight. From falling to the ground in September, Smith Rowe can now aim for the stars.