It’s difficult to explain fully but, sometimes, you just get a feeling that a manager is, to indulge football parlance, ‘not having’ or ‘doesn’t fancy’ a player. It is also true that once one starts to entertain these hunches, we can be guilty of seeing validation everywhere- even when it doesn’t necessarily exist.
However, I just always had this feeling that Mikel Arteta and Emile Smith Rowe was not destined to be a particularly long marriage. There is still time for me to be wrong about that, of course, but Smith Rowe’s fitful inclusion in the team since returning from injury in January has not surprised me as much as it has some Arsenal fans.
When he burst back onto the scene in December 2020 after a loan spell at Huddersfield and subsequent injury, the circumstances were ripe for him to flourish. Arsenal were so bereft of a creative presence to play between the lines that Willian and Alex Lacazette were repurposed to play as number 10s during the early part of 2020-21.
Smith Rowe cleared the incredibly low bar set by his colleagues during that spell but it didn’t stop Mikel Arteta from signing Martin Odegaard on loan in January 2021, before making the deal permanent that summer. Clearly a squad needs more than one number 10 but Smith Rowe has barely played the position at all since the spring of 2021.
He enjoyed a very fruitful season, especially in front of goal, sharing the left forward role with Gabriel Martinelli in 2021-22. The decision to finally undergo surgery on a long-standing (!) pelvic issue took Smith Rowe out of the squad for a few months at the beginning of this campaign. However, Arteta’s signings have always indicated, to me, that he doesn’t see ESR as a pivotal player for the squad.
Fabio Vieira and Leandro Trossard have been brought in during the last two windows and I just don’t think that would have happened had Arteta envisaged a prominent role for Smith Rowe. Since Zinchenko’s signing, it is difficult for me to envisage him playing as a left forward any longer. Martinelli stays very high and wide and that isn’t really Smith Rowe’s game at all.
His game is more geared towards Kieran Tierney making overlapping runs from left-back as Smith Rowe moves inside and, to some extent, the futures of the two players are partially linked. Perhaps you might have argued that Smith Rowe offers some variety in that position but his qualities are not hugely distinct from Trossard’s and I just don’t think Arteta sees Smith Rowe as challenging Trossard for any role.
There has been speculation that Arsenal are ‘re-training’ him for Granit Xhaka’s left eight position but it’s Fabio Vieira that Arteta is more willing to give those opportunities to in reality. It all sounds a little fanciful to me, like we are trying to invent reasons that Smith Rowe’s game time has been so limited recently other than the Occam’s Razor conclusion that Arteta just isn’t overly enamoured with the player.
I think there has always been a sense of circumspection in Arteta’s public utterances about ESR, even if the manager is usually a little surly and demanding of his young players. When Smith Rowe scored against West Brom in May 2021, Arteta sounded almost irked when he said, “He’s having an incredible season ever since he started to play in December.
“But he’s scoring his first Premier League goal. An incredible season for a No 10 of Arsenal means he needs to score 15 goals and give 10 assists.” In hindsight, it is interesting that Odegaard has hit almost exactly those numbers this season and it’s clear the manager felt the potential was there with his captain in a way I just don’t think he has with Smith Rowe.
When Smith Rowe extended his contract in the summer of 2021, I even detected a sense of reluctance as the player took the number 10 shirt. “I prefer players who ask for more than maybe they can take but if they believe they can do it, don’t put a limit on it.” This could be a symptom of confirmation bias on my part; but I always found it a little telling that Arteta was willing to say that, essentially, he didn’t think the player was ready for that responsibility.
Arteta’s public pronouncements have become progressively testier over time, when quizzed on the lack of game time for Smith Rowe last month, Arteta answered, “In football, it’s not about what you’ve done a year or a month ago, it’s about what you do now, what you did yesterday and what you’re going to do tomorrow. The player has to have that mindset and the contribution has to be now to the team to make us better and win games.”
That’s as close to a public rebuke as you can get. The quality of the minutes he has been getting since returning from injury have been low. I think we can overlook his “subbed as a sub” 47 minutes against Bournemouth due to his fitness levels at the time. Since then, he played nine minutes against Everton with the score at 4-0.
He was given 20 minutes in the away leg at Sporting in the Europa League, a match that Matt Turner started and Jakob Kiwior was given his debut in. Eight minutes against Crystal Palace with the score at 4-1. Six minutes against Leeds with the score at 4-1 and 20 dead minutes against Manchester City when Arsenal were 3-0 down. He got 13 minutes at 0-1 v Brighton in fairness but he came on after Trossard, Partey and Nelson.
I had a similar take to James on this week’s Arsecast Extra when it came to those subs, I felt they were borne of emotion. Though while James wondered whether Arteta had frustrations with Odegaard and Jesus, my own take / guess is that he was challenging Smith Rowe and Nketiah to go and change the game but in a manner where he didn’t think they would and wanted to validate his suspicions. It’s cod psychology, sure and I might well be wrong but it’s very much my hunch.
All but one of those sub appearances occurred when the game was totally and utterly dead, he got 20 minutes in the first leg against Sporting and none in the second leg, even though that game went to extra time. The number one indicator of how a coach feels about a player is in the selection pattern. It’s not just about a lack of minutes but look at the game state when the sporadic minutes occur.
That isn’t what a manager does with a trusted player. Now, it could be that this is all fitness related, of course. But Smith Rowe returned from surgery months ago now, if he is still struggling for fitness, I would wager his Arsenal future is probably in danger anyway, albeit not quite for the reasons that I am positing here.
As well as signing Trossard and Vieira, we know Arsenal have been interested in Raphinha and Mudryk too and it’s just difficult for me to believe that is the action of a coach who is invested in integrating Smith Rowe much further. The mood music has moved from a slight sense of foreboding to the score from Requiem for a Dream. I would not be surprised to see him sold during the summer at all.
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