It’s been more than 500 days since Emile Smith Rowe started for the Arsenal, but, after an interiminable sidelining due to injury (and other possible setbacks), the Smith, our own Croydon de Bruyne, finally cracked the starting lineup against Sheffield United. While our post-match rating of 7.23 was almost surely inflated by sentiment, it was inspiring in no small measure to see the lad stride out onto the pitch. That his performance was—if we’re being honest—kind of ordinary, it was gratifying if not inspiring to see him back in the XI.
He’s been through quite alot. A season and a half ago, it felt like he was on a trajectory similar to Saka’s—two Hale End products ready to make mincemeat of opposing defenses. In that effervescent 2021-22 campaign, in which we struggled and ultimately fell short of numerous targets, Smith Rowe scored 11 goals, and it was starting to feel like we had a pincer of an attack, what with him on the left and Saka on the right. Then, came the injury. Smith Rowe has missed enough matches to risk getting lumped in with the likes of Wilshere or Diaby.
And yet, against Sheffield United, he rose up. While his performance was admittedly pedestrian (yes, he did play a role in Nketiah’s third goal, akin to my claiming that Wilt Chamberlain and I once combined to score 100 points in an NBA game). there were sparks. There were sparks. Still, for as symbolic as a first start in an eternity might feel, Smith Rowe’s performance against Bournemouth a month ago offers even more encouragement. It was there that he came on late as a sub and very nearly finished off a tidy sequence only to see Neto push his shot just wide.
Still, there are stirrings and signals. Smith Rowe may be finding his way back to full fitness—and that forces the question: where does he play? He announced his arrival in the XI on the wing, but Martinelli has since cemented his spot there, and Smith Rowe might even find himself behind Trossard. Against Sheffield United, he started on the left in a 4-3-3, but that puts him in direct competition with Havertz, who has been struggling to prove his worth after a high-profile move from Chelsea.
On a sentimental level, I’m sure that I speak for most if not all of us when I say that I want to see Smith Rowe succeed…even if that means we’ve somehow wasted boatloads of money on Havertz. On a strategic level, I’m less sure that I speak for any of us when I say that I want to see the best player succeed…even if that means jettisoning Smith Rowe, who’s been with this club since he was ten years old.
Modern football is a colder, more-callous world; there’s little time or room for a player to evolve and grow on his own schedule. It’s put up or shut up. Smith Rowe has been given just a few chances at putting up; he’s done what he can. i’ll circle back to speaking for us all when I say that I hope he gets another chance, maybe as early as Wednesday against West Ham in the League Cup.
On one hand, it’s refreshing to feel like we have options at various positions. We have depth and tactical flexibility. On the other, it’s strangely discomfiting to see that arrive at the expense of one of our own, even more so when the player has been here since before that kind of depth and flexibility were considerations. Just a decade ago, a player could anticipate one of two roles at a larger club: one, a starter who would play a full 90 more often than not; and two, a sub who may or may not come off the bench for the last twenty minutes or so.
Much has been made of Arteta’s vision for “impactors”, with the idea being that subs are more than just warm bodies who see out a match (with apologies to Rob Holding); they’re potential match-changing players. It’s possible that Smith Rowe’s re-integration the squad might consist of his being one of those so-called “impactors”. From there, he might even win back a more-prominent role. I think that’s something we could all get behind…