It has been a frustrating season for Arsenal, as they have been languishing in mid table under Mikel Arteta. However, there have been signs of recovery, not least the emergence of homegrown midfielder Emile Smith-Rowe. The academy graduate has long been considered a player for the future, but he is now proving that he is ready for a sustained run in the first team. For the beginning of the campaign, it was obvious that the Gunners were lacking creativity in their midfield and the media blamed the ostacisation of Mesut Ozil for this. Although there was a campaign for the German’s reinstatement in January, the club stayed on their path and instead placed faith in Smith-Rowe. It is a decision that is already looking like the right one.
At the age of 20, Smith-Rowe is still learning the game and Arsenal need to remain patient with him as he develops in senior football. His loan spells at RB Leipzig and Huddersfield Town may not have stolen the headlines, but they would have provided a good experience for the young midfielder in different environments.
Few would have expected the 20-year-old to emerge as a regular starter for Arsenal this season, especially as he started the campaign playing in the Papa John’s Trophy for the U23 team. Smith-Rowe has clearly been impressing Arteta on the training ground and appearances in the cup competitions showed that he could be a solution to the creativity issues. He has now started 10 Premier League matches and accumulated 799 minutes, which is a big enough sample to look into what he is offering on the pitch.
Across the Premier League and Europa League matches, he has contributed one goal and six assists, with a goal involvement every 131.2 minutes. This is impressive considering his lack of experience. He will be looking to improve his direct goal threat to develop into a more well-rounded attacking player, but Arsenal will not penalise him for this, as he is offering the creativity that they need.
Smith-Rowe is proving to be a player that is effective at retaining possession in dangerous areas, while providing a creative spark to the Gunners’ front-line. He is averaging 3.45 shot creating actions, 2.76 progressive passes and 5.32 progressive carries per ninety minutes. According to FB Ref’s comparison tools, he is ranking averagely for these metrics above, but he does stand out in others.
He is averaging 0.27 expected assists (xA) per ninety minutes, which is excellent for his position and age. This underlines the impact he is having for Arsenal, as he is playing a key role in the creating of chances. It also suggests that he will continue to contribute regular assists, especially considering the attacking players that he is playing with.
For a creative player, it would be expected that Smith-Rowe would lose possession frequently, due to the risky approach to his passing. However, he has a pass success rate of 86.7%. This would be high in most positions, but it is remarkable for a player operating in the final third. It emphasises his impressive decision making and reading of the game.
There were some concerns about the signing of Martin Ødegaard during the January transfer window, as it was thought that it would limit Smith-Rowe’s minutes. Due to the amount of games left to be played and the return of the Europa League, it was important that Arteta carefully managed Smith-Rowe. However, the win over Leeds United showed that the two could co-exist. They were very fluid and the number of chances created by the team showed the benefits of both being on the pitch.
The emergence of Smith-Rowe has been an added bonus for Arsenal and it should serve as a reminder that they can trust in their academy as they try to rebuild under Arteta. There will be bumps along the road, but if he continues to start matches, he will continue to create chances for this Arsenal team.