Most fans would consider the unaddressed defensive frailties to be Arsenal’s most obvious weakness in recent seasons. In fact, most Arsenal squads in recent memory have fallen victim to frequent defensive mistakes. However, since Mikel Arteta’s arrival there has been a significant improvement with regards to the teams defensive structure and shape. Arteta is clearly hoping to build a solid foundation from which his team can play a more expansive style of football. But the new-found solidity in Arsenal’s defensive system has exposed another rather worrying void in the current playing squad. There is a stark lack of creativity and goal contributions from Arsenal’s current midfield options.
The Mesut Ozil conundrum:
The new Arsenal head coach has preferred a 4-2-3-1 formation since his arrival in December. In theory, this system is tailor-made to get the best out of roaming number 10’s such as Mesut Ozil. Indeed his best displays for Real Madrid, Arsenal, and Germany, have all came in this formation. And while we have seen some improvements in his performances since Arteta arrived, notably in his pressing and off the ball metrics, his key statistics in the final third have not seen much up an uptick.
In fact Ozil’s statistics in the final third have been on a steady decline for a number of seasons. While never a potent goal scorer from midfield, he was always among the games best creators. However, as highlighted by James McNicholas and Tom Worville in a recent piece for The Athletic, Ozil is “a creative player who is no longer creating at the levels he was”. The 2015/16 season when he contributed 19 assists seems a distant memory, and this fantastic graph produced by The Athletic displaying his ‘Attack Rating’ shows a player in steady decline.
For context Ozil has provided the assist for just 1 of Aubameyang’s 61 goals so far in an Arsenal shirt. (Trust me, I watched a compilation of all his goals to verify because I could not believe this stat!) He’s playing with one of the most prolific finishers in the world and his numbers are still decreasing. If Arteta intends to persist with this 4-2-3-1 formation, it is imperative to get more consistent creativity and goal contributions from the number 10 position.
Similarly, if Arteta intends to switch to a 4-3-3 formation, utilising two ‘free 8s’ as he would have been accustomed to at Manchester City, he must find more output from his midfield options. This decline in creativity is not just reflected by Mesut Ozil’s statistics, Arsenal’s central midfielders have scored just 8 goals in all competitions this season. That figure is down from 20 goals for the 2018/19 season. It is abundantly clear that this team needs a new creative force in midfield, hence why fans have been eagerly fuelling transfer speculation involving a whole host of midfield playmakers. Most recently, Philippe Coutinho has been linked, but the sums involved in such a deal, even if it where just a loan, are simply eye-watering. I personally don’t believe that Arsenal should go out of their way to be a landing spot for expensive misfits, nor do favours for Raul’s agent friends, especially not when the players have taken a pay cut and they are laying off scouts. While there is perhaps some hope that Ozil can rediscover form, there is only one year left on his huge contract, so regardless Arsenal must find someone else to fill the creative void in midfield. Enter stage right: Emile Smith Rowe.
Emile Smith Rowe: the archetypal modern playmaker
I’ve written before about how promising it is to have a group of young talents coming through at Arsenal in a time when the business of football is facing a financial crisis. However, amid all the fanfare surrounding Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli, a player who has flown under the radar is Emile Smith Rowe. But it is injury, not lack of talent, that has seen many forget the potential of the young attacking midfielder. While the other young players made huge strides, Smith Rowe’s 2019 was plagued by a persistent groin injury that no doubt has slowed his progress. But with Mesut Ozil entering the final year of his contract and with Arsenal likely lacking the financial capabilities to bring in a replacement, Emile’s path to the Arsenal first team is beginning to clear.
Early Arsenal career:
Smith Rowe is a midfielder most Arsenal fans will have been aware of for a number of years now. But to get a better insight into his Arsenal academy career, I asked Arsenal youth expert Jeorge Bird what his reputation was like coming through the younger age groups.
“Smith Rowe was always very highly regarded when he was progressing through the ranks at Arsenal and often played above his age group. There was much interest in him from other clubs, including Barcelona, but he decided to stay at Arsenal as he felt he would have a better pathway into the first-team. At youth level he would often dominate games with his slick passing, although he tended to be used more on the left wing than in midfield.”
The 19 year-old has also been involved in the England set up at all age groups, including being in the U-17 squad that won the World Cup in October 2017, along with the likes of Calum Hudson-Odoi and Phil Foden.
With clubs like Barcelona sniffing around it was never going to take long for Smith Rowe to make an impression in the first-team, and sure enough after an impressive pre season under Unai Emery, he was handed his debut in a Europa League game in September 2018. He then scored on his first start in the next Europa fixture and for the first half of that campaign put in impressive displays in the Europa group stages and League Cup. However, in January 2019, with Ozil, Ramsey, and Mkhitaryan ahead of him in the pecking order it was decided that a loan move would be good for his development.
2019: A year of set-backs
Unsurprisingly, a host of top flight European clubs were keen to take Smith Rowe on loan, but it was RB Liepzig, a team brimming with the best young European talent, who won the race. Unfortunately, he never fully recovered from the groin injury which was sustained before joining, and he was limited to just 3 appearances for the Bundesliga outfit during his few months in Germany. The same injury would be a persistent problem throughout the entirety of 2019. But he must have done enough during his short spell in Liepzig to convince the club’s management of his talent. There were reliable reports at the time that Liepzig wanted to sign him on a permanent deal, and figures of around £20 million were mentioned. Liepzig also openly admitted they wanted to at least retain his services for another year on loan. So despite the disappointing lack of playing time, a club renowned for identifying some of the best young talent in the game were very keen to keep Smith Rowe.
The Huddersfield Revival:
For much of the first half of the 2019/20 season, Emile was still recovering from the lingering injury. And although he did make a further 3 appearances for the first team, by the time Arteta arrived at the club in December, it was clear he was in desperate need of some solid first-team football. Another loan was necessary, and it was decided that the Championship would guarantee the important minutes his development needed. Again a number of clubs were interested, with strugglers Huddersfield Town being chosen, and I’m sure both parties have been delighted with the results. It’s no exaggeration to say that Smith Rowe has been a catalyst for Huddersfield turning around what had been a tough season back in the Championship.
The 19 year-old has scored 1 goal and provided 3 assists so far in 8 starts for Huddersfield, operating exclusively in his favoured Number 10 position. Huddersfield boss Danny Cowley made a total of 6 January additions in an effort to turn their season around with them sitting 20th in the Championship. None of which had a greater impact that bringing Emile in on loan and making him the creative hub of the team.
Huddersfield fans have been making comparisons with Leicester and England left-back Ben Chilwell. Who in 2015, while also aged 19, played 8 matches on loan with the Championship side, before going back to Leicester and claiming his starting spot.
Opta analyst David Hartrick told the ExaminerLive that Huddersfield fans should make the most of watching the “absolutely brilliant” Smith Rowe, because he will be back in and Arsenal shirt next season.
“Smith Rowe has completely changed the dynamic of the Town attack” said Hartrick. “Getting to see him play more in a Huddersfield Town shirt before the end of the season, whenever that is, will be a very bright thing. And every Town fan, I would suggest, should try and watch him at least once so they can say, when he does get his full England cap, I remember watching him in a Town shirt.”
Opta Analyst David Hartrick
Why he is a perfect fit for Arteta’s plans:
When watching Smith Rowe play, the speed at which he operates is what impresses the most. He is blessed with a quick burst of acceleration and fast feet, which has seen him spend a lot of time in wide positions as a youth player. His first thought is always to get the ball forward, either by driving with it himself or zipping a pass into the front men. It is this speed of play which has made him stand out in the Championship, and could see him becoming a key instigator for Arsenal’s attack in the years to come.
Huddersfield boss Danny Cowley gave a glowing report of the playmaker before the break in play.
“Emile Smith Rowe is just a really lovely player isn’t he? He looked a top player didn’t he? 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 and I think it would have been a brilliant performance if he had scored. I am always going to be demanding of him because, to me, he is a Premier League player so I have to treat him like that and demand Premier League standards from him – in training and in games, day in and day out. It was a really good performance.”
Huddersfield Town manager Danny Cowley
His athleticism will also appeal to Arteta, as this Arsenal team can sometimes be found lacking of power and drive from central areas. We know Arteta wants his attackers to be the team’s first line of defence with effective and sustained pressing high up the pitch. This has sometimes seen Joe Willock been deployed in the 10 position on occasions, even though most consider his future as a box to box midfielder. He even brought on Guendouzi against Everton in a more advanced position with the purpose of harassing the opposition defenders. And while Ozil has certainly improved in this area, Smith Rowe’s pace and power will be a huge asset if it can be correctly harnessed by Arteta’s coaching staff. With David Ornstein on record saying that Ozil will not be going anywhere until his contract runs out at the end of next season, Arteta can use next season to integrate Smith Rowe into his first-team set-up without putting too much pressure too quickly on a player who doesn’t turn 20 until July.
Arteta knows better than most what ingredients make a perfect modern day attacking midfielder. He will have worked first-hand with Kevin De Bruyne for 3 years on the training pitches at Manchester City. De Bruyne, who himself started out as a wide player at Genk, is also an impressive athlete who has that intangible ability to change the pace of a game. If Arteta can pass on some of the knowledge he’s gained from coaching the best in the game, Arsenal might already have the perfect replacement for Mesut Ozil. Let’s hope the young man from Croydon, who’s been at Arsenal since the age of 10, gets an opportunity to fulfil his huge potential at his boyhood club.