Evening all, and welcome to a new year. So far, I have spent most of 2021 eating cod stew, or bacalao as it’s known in these parts. In Mexico (and in other Spanish-speaking countries, I believe) it is traditionally eaten on New Year’s eve. It’s oily, garlicky, tomatoey and delightfully fishy. My mother-in-law made a shit load of it I have been gleefully spreading it on toast and pouring it on tortillas ever since.
While I have been happily piling on the pounds, Arsenal have been piling on the points in the Premier League. After enduring our worst run for the best part of 50 years in the build up to Christmas, Mikel Arteta’s side have managed to string together three successive wins against Chelsea, Brighton and at a snowy West Brom. The Gunners have scored eight goals in this run – having mustered just three in the previous seven league games – and we now occupy the lofty perch of 11th place in the table. There is suddenly an entirely different feeling around the club and any talk of the team as potential relegation candidates, particularly from big-headed football managers in the Midlands, has been emphatically quietened.
One player that has been key to this remarkable turnaround is Emile Smith-Rowe. Having not played a minute of Premier League football this season before Boxing Day, the young attacking midfielder has started each of the last three games. Prior to the Chelsea game – in which defeat might have meant the sack – Arteta tweaked his formation slightly in a bid to find some kind of offensive threat. He went to a back-four and, crucially, slotted ESR in as a number 10 to link the midfield and the attack. Given the 20-year-old’s lack of experience, it was a huge gamble. But it has paid off in spectacular fashion. ESR has notched two assists in three games and looks to have carved his name into the starting XI, for the foreseeable future at least.
The emergence of a Hale End Academy product, who signed for Arsenal when he was just 10, into the first team of course brings me great joy. Every football fan wants to see a player come through the youth system and make an impact – and a career – at his club. But aside from my obvious and inevitable bias, there is so much to like about the way ESR plays football.
Ever since he was handed his debut by Unai Emery in the Europa League group stage game against Vorskla in 2018, he has always clearly had the technical quality required to make it at Arsenal. This ability was on brilliant display as he assisted the second goal against the Baggies. After great work by Hector Bellerin, ESR found a pocket of space and played an incisive, one-touch pass forward to fellow Academy graduate Bukayo Saka. The 20-year-old continued his run forward and then, on receiving an accurate but bouncing and firmly-struck pass from Alex Lacazette, exquisitely controlled the ball on his left-foot and effortlessly squared it off his right. Saka slotted home comfortably and Arsenal scored comfortably their best goal of the season so far.
Regular readers will know that Tomas Rosicky is my favourite football player of all time. Although perhaps not the flashiest player, I just loved his infectious positivity on the pitch. When he played well, Arsenal tended to do the same. I’m beginning to see a lot of similarities between the Czech and Smith-Rowe.
First, there is the progressive thinking. Whenever ESR receives the ball, wherever he is on the pitch, he always looks to move the ball forward. It is often a relatively simple pass, but he has the vision to see it and the skill to execute it. If there isn’t a forward pass to be played, he will move the ball sideways or backwards, but he always does so quickly and purposefully. He might not be the guy who slots eye-catching passes through the heart of the defense every game, but ESR is always willing to take a calculated risk in order to create the chance of an opening. Popping up in all corners on the pitch, he combines effortlessly with his teammates. He is, to coin a phrase, the great connector.
Then there is the movement. Off the ball ESR is – like Rosicky was – a bundle of energy. Every pass is accompanied by a movement into space, making himself available to receive the ball again if necessary. Meanwhile in defense he is persistent and determined with his press. According to Premier League tracking data, he had covered more ground – 10.1km – and completed more sprints (13) than any other player on the pitch by the time he was eventually substituted in the 77th minute at The Hawthorns.
Of course, it is still too early to say what impact ESR might have on the team in the long-term. He has only played 43 professional club games, including just five appearances in the Premier League. First and foremost, Arteta and his staff will be hoping ESR can stay fit (another, less-exciting similarity to Rosicky). Loan stints in the Bundesliga with Leipzig – where he mustered just 3 appearances – and in the Championship with Huddersfield were both hampered by injury. In any case, given his lack of experience, his form can be expected to fluctuate between now and May and so Arsenal should look to bring in another player that can do his job during the current transfer market.
Arsenal’s new-found attacking impetus is not entirely down to ESR. Saka continues to be brilliant, Gabriel Martinelli and Kieran Tierney have added drive from the left, and Lacazette has finally found some form in front of goal. But the 20-year-old’s influence on an Arsenal team that had until recently appeared painfully disjointed is hard to overstate. Long may it continue.
Right, that’s about all I’ve got for you today. I’ll be back here with more on Wednesday. Till then.
—What do you think about Emile Smith-Rowe’s impact at Arsenal? Let me know in the comments section below!—