Is there any room left at the Arsenal for Emile Smith Rowe?


It’s hard to believe that it was just over a year ago that Emile Smith Rowe had completed an effervescent campaign in which he scored 11 goals in 37 appearances. Alongside Bukayo Saka, it looked like a genuine youth movement would re-invigorate the club Sadly, though, the Smith’s scintillating start to that 2012-22 season faltered, and he scored just one goal in his 12 appearances. Still, his future seemed bright—but that’s when the wheels came off. Fast forward to now, and one has to wonder whether the lad can find his way back.

With eight of his goals and both of his assists coming from the left wing (before Martinelli’s own emergence as a potential star), it seemed like the future of Arsenal’s attack lay in the hands of Smith Rowe on that left and of Bukayo Saka on the right. Two Hale End boys wreaking havoc? It would be hard to write a better script for Arsenal’s resurrection. However, as we all know, a persistent groin injury dating back to August 2019 finally forced Smith Rowe to undergo surgery in September 2022, ruling him for nearly four months. In the interim, of course, Gabriel Martinelli seized his chance, terrorising defences on his way to seven goals and two assists. Even a fully fit Smith Rowe would have struggled to displace the Brazilian. Worse, January saw the signing of Leandro Trossard,

One does not simply walk back into a squad after groin surgery. Arteta, perhaps preferring to ease Smith Rowe back into the squad, also had two players who were in-form and could interchange fluidly from the flank and central positions. Strangely, after Smith Rowe’s return, Arteta named to the squad ten times without sending him on at all and sent him on five times for less than ten minutes, a strange balance between re-integrating him and not trusting him, especially as others were looking jaded and fatigued during the run-in. I’m not suggesting that Arteta should have been more aggressive with Smith Rowe’s introduction…but I’m not sure how to back out of the corner I just painted myself in. This was poor squad management, poor and simple.

Fortunately for our “Croydon de Bruyne”, there’s a light at the end of this tunnel. During England’s u21 run, he’s shown us—and, one hopes, Arteta—what he’s capable of. He came on against Czech Republic to score the goal that secured an 0-2 win. Starting the next match against Israel, he had a brilliant shot saved onto the post and then cleared off the line before showing the kind of link-up play that might remind us of Wilshere’s goal against Norwich or Rosický’s against Sunderland but turning provider for Cole Palmer to make it 0-2 before coming off. Last but not least, in the penultimate match against Spain’s u21, Smith Rowe played 66 minutes before making way for Noni Madueke as England the Euro u21 Championship in dramatic fashion.

Will Smith Rowe’s performances here convince Arteta that he’s back to full fitness and ready to fight for, maybe even earn a spot in the Arsenal XI? He may no longer be first choice on the left, and it’s possible to probably that Kai Havertz will take up the attacking midfield position at which Smith Rowe also performed well before his surgery. His best hope may lay in Arteta’s vision for a squad full of versatile players who can step in to a variety of roles. A 4-3-3 might give Smith Rowe more possibilities—there’d be that left wing, of course, but also the left midfield position. There’s still Martinelli, Trossard, and now Havertz to compete with, but Smith Rowe could also make a case for rotating with Ødegaard from the right side (where he did play twice for the u21s…).

Taking a longer view, for as tough as this may be for Smith Rowe, it’s an encouraging sign that we’re starting to see genuine competition for playing time. Smith Rowe seems like the kind of player who will want to fight for time on the pitch, and that can only mean good news for the squad as a whole. He will have to push himself and will, in turn, push those who vie for the positions he craves.

The knock-on effect will then fall to Arteta: can he learn to manage a squad that will challenge him to rotate players who are fighting for and presumably earning time on the pitch? His management of late begs more questions than it offers answers. Let’s hope for everyone’s sake that the process we’re asked to trust includes a steeper learning from the man who’s done that asking…

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16 thoughts on “Is there any room left at the Arsenal for Emile Smith Rowe?

  1. Eoin ó Conchobhair

    would love to see ESR get back into the squad but I think we have to be more ruthless. Just because he’s Hale End doesn’t mean he gets to walk in. He still has to fight. The days of there being one nailed-on starter at most positions is gone, thanks to all the money being thrown about, the five-sub rule, and other factors. You need depth & versatility, and that means players have to be willing to accept rotation without seeing it as a demotion.

    Like you say John, this is also a challenge to Arteta’s ability to manage the rotations. Frankly, his treatment of Tierney is not a sign of optimism.

    1. Jon Shay Post author

      That idea of ruthlessness is a tough one. The club is more important than the player, of course, but I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the idea that players can be pitted against each other like this. “Not willing to work hard? We can replace you with a cheaper, younger, hungrier player”. I know it’s not that cut-and-dry, but it can lead to poor chemistry if players are put in positions where they can’t trust each other.

  2. Howard

    If there is room for Joginho, Elneny, Viera why not for ESR who scored 10 goals a couple of years ago but for injuries?

    1. Jon Shay Post author

      Feels a bit like apples to oranges. Jorginho was a stop-gap cover to replace the injured Elneny, who himself has only ever been a useful utility player. Vieira is a project for future development and the closest comparison by age, position, & potential. He’s behind Odegaard for obvious reasons and probably ESR for similar if less-obvious reasons.

  3. Yaritza

    I really hope so. – I love watching him play, he’s such a joyful player and so fun to watch. Arteta better find a way to make a room for him, maybe not every week, but definitely on a regular basis.

  4. jw1

    Believe there’s a parallel– with ESR and Gabriel Martinelli, in how the club/Arteta managed their returns from injury. Recall, there were cries from fans for Mikel to slot Marti back into the XI after his season-long injury– during that period when ESR was shining. Have to believe that in both cases the caution for their returns to the pitch have been data-driven decisions.

    Matter of fact, ESR may get his shot out wide this preseason– as Martinelli’s return from the ankle injury which occurred versus Brighton mid-May– is still unknown.

    1. Mike VW

      Great point, I’m surprised Jon looked past that. It might be frustrating to player and fans to wait on a return but it’s deffo better than rushing a player back or trusting when he says he feels fine, that seemed to happen way too much under Arséne. How many times did players come back too soon only to aggravate the injury or pick up some other knock because they were compensating for the first one?

      1. Palladio43

        Two concerns or points have been raised by today’s commentators as well as by Jon:
        1) Arteta’s management skills both as to how he brings players back from injuries or how he works them in and weans them to senior or starting status
        2) Arteta’s ruthlessness as he deals with players and whether this is, while necessary to develop the best squad and the best of many players, may be counterproductive at times and not always a successful strategy.

        Examples of both have been cited and the data is spotty. Thus, we look at Tierney and ESR and wonder, if not worry. History seems to have proven Arteta as being correct with Ozil and Aubo, but was it as much a clash of egos as a coaching decision. Thus, I might also add a third concern:
        3) Game management skills and the ability to adapt both before a match to your opponent versus seeking to retain a specific approach, formation, or style, and, when failing or struggling, unwilling or unable to make changes. To this one might add, sticking with certain players, albeit when limited by injuries, e.g., the marginally successful Holding experience.

  5. NB

    We’re building a squad, not a team. He’ll be there as backup to Havertz. If he performs well, he’ll jump ahead. It’s now down to him to prove himself.

    1. Jon Shay Post author

      I took pains to refer to a squad rather than a team. Your third point is the most-salient; it’s up to ESR to prove he deserves to start ahead of Havertz.

  6. A Simple Truth

    let’s face it, if MA doesn’t fancy you in his starting 11, thus far anyways, it’s going to be tough sledding, unless injuries occur or the player you’re likely to replace speaks out of turn…ESR has never been favoured by MA and if it weren’t for several untimely injuries he might never had seen the light of day…once he played and saved the day, so to speak, there were some within the hierarchy who feared if we sold him that summer it could be Gnabry 2.0, so he was somewhat grudgingly retained…if we or he knew what was coming, a move elsewhere would have made perfect sense, as it’s incredibly unlikely that he’s ever going to be a regular starter unless Havertz or Ode are sidelined long-term and/or Arteta is relieved of his duties…whether it’s because he doesn’t rate him enough to play him in his best position, as an AM, or he doesn’t want to become overly reliant on a player with his injury history, which isn’t totally unreasonable, untimately matters very little, as it’s clear by now this isn’t a good fit for the player in question or his manager…too bad, as I figured that once MA had finally taken the handbrakes off and deployed Xhaka in more advanced places, this would open the door for ESR to eventually replace him in the 2nd half of last season…this clearly didn’t occur and now that Havertz is on board, this can has been kicked even further down the proverbial road

    1. Jon Shay Post author

      I’m going to have to explore Arteta’s side of these situations in more depth. I use transfermarkt for a lot of insights, but they only list his position as CM all season long. If there had been coincidence between ESR’s return in January and Xhaka’s shift to the more-advanced role, this would present by strong implication the idea that MA didn’t/doesn’t trust ESR. I’ve puzzled over why he kept naming ESR to the bench only to so rarely use him – this served no other real purpose. If he’s fit, start playing him to regain match fitness. If he’s not fit, let him focus on training/treatment. Puzzling. Maybe even baffling.

      Thanks btw for bringing up Gnabry. I was furious at seeing him loaned out at all, even more so to a Tony Pulis side. That experience surely played a significant role in the player’s desire to return to Germany, and, well, the rest is obvious.

      1. A Simple Truth

        the players who really sidelined both ESR and Marts were Willian and Ceballos, when Arteta mistakenly opted for a short-sighted retool…when things went sideways by Xmas and ESR emerged as the only option, MA had no choice but to play him…during that same early spring period some fans were starting to clamor for Marts, at which point Arteta publicly claimed he wasn’t fit…in the days following, Marts went to social media to craftily suggest otherwise, which endeared him to those within the fanbase looking to have Arteta replaced, but didn’t sit well with the manager…if it weren’t for MA’s poor squad building plan, in his first full season, a series of injuries and Willian careening back to earth, following his early season purple patch, we might have seen very little of either of these young blue chippers

        as for the whole CM/AM designation, I don’t give it a lot of weight, in that in MA’s preferred formation the only real difference is that the CM has more defensive responsibilities,,,even so, Xhaka(CM) played as much in the opposing final third as his own, this past season, and we all know Ode(AM) had some box-to-box responsibilities…btw the only reasons why ESR was forced out wide, was to accomodate Xhaka, who was one of the two deep-lying pivots during our borefest sideways days, and because we had Tierney bombing up the wings, so ESR was actually tucking inside most of the time as an LM/AM…have a good one

  7. palladio43

    Like it or not, what “A simple Truth” has said, i.e., “let’s face it, if MA doesn’t fancy you in his starting 11, thus far anyways, it’s going to be tough sledding, unless injuries occur or the player you’re likely to replace speaks out of turn” tells it all. We expect our managers, head coaches, etc. to be both wise, knowing, brilliant tacticians, etc., but sometimes having them be self-assured, if not arrogant, can become a problem and may come at the expense of winning or success. In the old days, it worked for Connie Mack, George Halas, and a few others, but also backfired a bit for Mike Ditka, Arsene Wenger, and others. It is a fine line to walk and, I suspect, players are no longer as subservient and accepting (or even docile), as they once were. Maybe it is present-day society or just that, long ago, they earned very little and could not be free-agents, tethering, if not chaining them to their clubs. Nowadays they can often afford to leave or even quite, having earned enough to last several life-times (unless they are saddled with one or more WAGS, of course)

  8. Pingback: Who needs Havertz when we have our own Croydon de Bruyne? - Woolwich 1886, an Arsenal site

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