How well did Emile Smith-Rowe play on his first start?
Three games, two assists and one goal. Of all the doom and gloom surrounding Arsenal in previous years one positive of this sustained period in the Europa League is the clear pathway that has been created for academy players into the first team. We’ve seen Maitland-Niles, Reiss Nelson and most recently Bakayo Saka use the Europa League group stages as a springboard into first team contention. A range of Hale End graduates have regularly played in the Europa League this season and the standout amongst them may have been Emile Smith-Rowe.
Now Smith-Rowe is not new to first team action, having made his debut for Arsenal as early as 2018, however a mixture of loan spells and injuries have halted his progress and he’ll be hoping that this season he can cement his place in the premier league squad as other academy products have done before him.
Against Dundalk, Smith Rowe started well, Arsenal lined up in an on the ball 3-4-3 formation with Smith-Rowe, Nketiah and Pepe making up the front three. Arsenal played a double pivot of Joe Willock and Mohammad Elneny in the middle of the park which is deficient of a real technician who specialises in progressing the ball forward and connecting midfield to attack. Arteta compensated for this by allowing Smith-Rowe to drift into more central positions at times to provide numerical superiorities in midfield with Maitland-Niles at LWB providing the width.
Arsenal started by building most of their attacks down the right hand side with Pepe and Cedric, despite this Smith-Rowe did show early moments of promise by combining well with Maitland-Niles down the left to provide an accurate cutback from the by-line for Pepe in the box who failed to hit the target.
It’ll be very intriguing to see how this combination could blossom in the future when adding Saka potentially playing in a left sided number eight position, where a promising attacking triangle could blossom.
Smith-Rowe showed his versatility on the left hand side in the first half dropping into a midfield position to provide the assist for Elneny’s goal, albeit the manner of the goal was more down to an incredible effort from Elneny from outside the box, rather than Smith-Rowe’s individual contribution.
Smith-Rowe provided a mobile and technically secure option on that left hand side for Arsenal as well as an adequate presser. As well as dropping into central positions against Dundalk, Smith-Rowe made many effective runs in behind attempting to find goal threatening positions. This attacking mobility and versatility is a real key strength of Smith-Rowe’s that many of Arsenal’s senior attacking players could learn from.
Arsenal went into the second half in a comfortable 2-1 position after excellent goals from Nketiah highlighting Arsenal’s effective pressing and a rocket from Elneny providing flashbacks for all Arsenal fans who remember the goal he scored against Barcelona. A goal from Jordan Flores later in the second half negated Arsenal’s pursuit for a clean sheet however Dundalk never really threatened Arsenal again effectively in the second half aside from one late half chance.
In the second half Smith-Rowe continued to have a fine game. Because of his tactical versatility he picked up positions in between the lines for Arsenal where Dundalk struggled to mark him in those half spaces. In the 62nd minute Balogun was brought on for Nketiah and Smith-Rowe swapped flanks with Pepe which brought an end to the promising Maitland-Niles/Smith Rowe partnership. This change however did not affect Smith-Rowe’s effectiveness as he made more advanced runs into the box from the right hand side where he could have had another assist with a better Pepe finish in the box.
Arsenal started building more attacks down the left with Pepe becoming more influential and in the 77th minute Smith-Rowe was taken off for another promising talent in Ben Cottrell. Who coincidentally came on and played back in Smith-Rowe’s original position on the left wing. Shortly after the substitution, Balogun’s got his second goal from a Sadio Mane-esque run in behind and finish, ending a superb night for Arsenal’s Hale End boys.
If any player showed signs of struggling perhaps question marks can be raised for Alex Runnarsson who let in a second goal deep into the second half from a set-piece where he perhaps should have reacted quicker for the header. The match ended 4-2 to the Gunners with Balogun stealing the headlines after another impressive appearance of the bench. In the excitement of Balogun’s showing, Smith-Rowe’s contribution cannot be overlooked where in his 77-minute cameo, he was Arsenal’s best player on the ball, contributing to three chances created, the most of any Arsenal players on the night.
Mikel Arteta’s man management has been quite controversial in many fans eyes because of his reluctance to use Saliba and Ozil and the handling of the recent Partey injury. One area Arteta has to get credit for is his slow acclimation of Smith-Rowe back into first team action where if he can remain injury free, he will be ever-present throughout the season.