Arsenal scored four goals in their Champions League thrashing of PSV Eindhoven last week, producing a thrilling display of attacking football, but the most meaningful cheer of the night was not prompted by anything that happened on the pitch. Instead it was a substitution, in the 69th minute, that triggered the game’s biggest outpouring of joy.
It is a measure of the love that Arsenal supporters have for Emile Smith Rowe that the mere sight of him trotting onto the Emirates Stadium turf can elicit such a rapturous reception. Few players are as adored as Smith Rowe, the academy graduate who kickstarted Mikel Arteta’s revolution, and the Arsenal manager was moved by the crowd’s response.
“I was really emotional,” Arteta said later that night. “He is a player that has not played much yet, and to get the reception that he got was well deserved. I am so happy for him.”
It must have been a beautiful moment for Smith Rowe, an Arsenal player since the age of nine, but it does not change the fact that these are complicated times for the 23-year-old. Not so long ago, he was one of the first names on Arteta’s team sheet. Now, he can barely get a game.
In eight matches so far this campaign, Smith Rowe has played little more than 25 minutes from the bench. It is a similar story as the second half of last season, when he was restricted to feeding off scraps – a few minutes here, a couple of moments there – for months.
An extraordinary statistic is that Smith Rowe has not started a competitive match for his club since 16 May 2022. If he plays from the beginning against Brentford in Wednesday’s League Cup match, as is expected, it will therefore be his first start for Arsenal in 499 days.
How has this happened to a player who looked to be so fundamental to Arteta’s project? The first point to make is that injury issues have played a significant part in Smith Rowe’s prolonged absence from the team. This time last year, after months of discomfort, he underwent surgery to repair a damaged tendon in his groin. He had actually been managing the problem for years, since he was a teenager.
The operation meant that Smith Rowe missed more than four months but it was successful and, as of the spring, he was fully fit and ready to help Arsenal’s charge for the Premier League title. After a return of 10 goals in 33 league appearances the previous season, many assumed that he would play a vital role in the run-in. Arteta, however, was evidently not on the same page.
It seems that part of the problem for Smith Rowe has been the evolution of Arsenal’s tactical system. The arrival last summer of Oleksandr Zinchenko as an inverted left-back meant that Arteta now required his left winger to provide the width on that flank — a role perfectly suited to Gabriel Martinelli.
Smith Rowe is more of an attacking midfielder, who drifts infield if he starts on the flank, than an old-fashioned winger. This change of shape meant that he was therefore now competing with Granit Xhaka and Martin Odegaard for a role in more central areas. “The best position for Emile is in those pockets,” said Arteta on Tuesday. “It is not to play as a pure winger.”
Last season, Xhaka started 36 of Arsenal’s 38 league games. Odegaard, meanwhile, started 37 of 38. Such was their reliability, and such was the settled nature of the team, Smith Rowe was forced to look on from the bench.
His cause was not helped by the arrival of Fabio Vieira from Porto in a £34 million deal. For those two matches in which Xhaka did not start, it was Vieira who got the nod. Arsenal invested a significant amount of money in the Portuguese playmaker and the coaching staff clearly wanted to see what he could do. Again, it left Smith Rowe on the outside.
Given Smith Rowe’s lack of action last season, there were serious questions to be answered this summer about his long-term future at the club. Especially after Kai Havertz had been signed, for £65 million, to play in that same position in attacking midfield. But Arsenal made it clear from the start that Smith Rowe would not be leaving. Chelsea tried to have a conversation towards the end of the window, but got nowhere.
Asked on Tuesday if Smith Rowe can still be a key player for his team, Arteta was unequivocal. “He needs to be,” the Arsenal manager said. “A player of that talent, who has come through our system. That is what we want — that our best players, with the quality and talent they have, contribute to take the club where we want.”
Smith Rowe arrived for Arsenal’s pre-season on a high, having just won the European Under-21 Championship with England. He impressed in the tournament, scoring twice, and looked exciting and sharp in Arsenal’s friendly matches in the weeks leading up to the campaign. Again, though, it has not led to meaningful minutes.
Footballers of Smith Rowe’s talent are not used to being patient but, for the past year, he has had no choice. For now, all he can do is hope that Arteta finally gives him a chance – starting with Brentford on Wednesday night – and then show that the Arsenal manager has been wrong to overlook him for so long.
“He needs time on the pitch and he needs opportunities and we want to provide that to him,” said Arteta. “Then he needs to prove it, like anybody else on the field, that he deserves to play.”