It was Boxing Day of 2020. Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal, after instilling so much hope the previous summer with that miraculous FA Cup triumph, were in dire straits. They had not won a match since November 1, sitting at seven games without victory heading into a critical clash with Chelsea. Arsenal had only ever suffered one worse winless streak, back at the end of 1992. While Frank Lampard’s Blues prepared to go second in the league with a win, the Gunners languished in 15th after 14 matches played.
A significant driving force behind this poor first half of the season was Arsenal’s lack of creative talent. Gone were the days when Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Tomas Rosicky, and Mikel Arteta all jostled for minutes in the Gunners’ midfield. Four of those players were no longer at the club, while the first man on that list had been excluded from Arsenal’s Premier League and Europa League squads by the last. It was a difficult, awkward, and unpopular decision, and so far it had looked like the wrong one.
Entering the Chelsea match, Arteta’s men averaged an xG per game of just 1.11 in the league according to FBref. Without Ozil, Arsenal were simply bereft of reliable creators in the team. Bukayo Saka was not yet ready to carry the load and Gabriel Martinelli had not fully broken into the team. Nicolas Pepe was 18 months into a disappointing Arsenal career and Willian had proven downright abysmal. In midfield the Gunners had Granit Xhaka, Dani Ceballos, Mohamed Elneny, and Joe Willock to call on, as well as an oft-injured Thomas Partey on occasion. But none were particularly effective in chance creation.
As a result, Arteta’s project was at risk of being over before it truly began. Perhaps the Arsenal hierarchy would have stuck with him even through a relegation battle, perhaps they eventually would have been forced to pull the plug. Thankfully, we’ll never know. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and Arteta made one of the boldest calls of his tenure: he started Emile Smith Rowe against Chelsea.
Up until that point, the young Englishman was something of an unknown quantity. He had burgeoned into the first team over the previous few seasons, racking up Europa League and domestic cup minutes when he wasn’t on loan at RB Leipzig or Huddersfield. Smith Rowe was an immensely promising prospect, but was inexperienced in the English top flight. He had only played 97 minutes in the league when Arteta thrust him into the Boxing Day lineup for his first-ever start.
The gamble paid off. In a shocking upset, Arsenal defeated Chelsea 3-1. Playing at the ten position, Smith Rowe’s zippy give-and-go style and ball security in the final third catalyzed the Gunners’ victory, giving his side a sudden attacking potency that Chelsea couldn’t cope with. As the cherry on top, Smith Rowe assisted Bukayo Saka’s overhit-cross-turned-goal that sealed the win. It was a debut that changed the trajectory of the Arteta project.
We all know the story from there. For the next year and a half, Arsenal performed like a top-four team in terms of points collected. After drawing so many questions regarding whether he could coach a functional attack, Arteta was finally putting out a side that could competently threaten enemy goals. Arsenal came eighth again that season, but narrowly finished outside of the Champions League places in 2021/22. During that campaign, Smith Rowe was among Arsenal’s top scorers, finishing with 11 goals and two assists in 37 appearances. He and Saka, both Hale End talents, were combining to lift Arsenal out of the doldrums.
Unfortunately, this past season was not as kind to Arsenal’s current no. 10. At the end of September, the club announced that Smith Rowe had undergone surgery on a damaged tendon in his groin. In their statement on the matter, Arsenal mentioned that the issue had bothered him in recent months. However, Smith Rowe revealed earlier this year that the injury had indeed plagued him since he was 18 years old.
Obviously, a procedure of that magnitude takes time to recover from. Lots of time. As any doctor or sports medicine expert will tell you, the rehabilitation process from major injuries and surgeries is not linear. Progress is slower on some days than it is on others. Setbacks happen; a player might be cleared for certain activities but their body responds negatively. Exercises might need to be adjusted because they no longer benefit the player. A player compensating for an injury might stress and eventually injure another part of their body. Every injury and every body is different, and even at the highest level, it is sometimes a case of trial and error.
Smith Rowe no doubt struggled with such a non-linear recovery process. After a little over three months out, the Englishman came on for the last 15 minutes of Arsenal’s 3-0 win at Oxford United in the third round of the FA Cup. Six days later, he was subbed on for the final minute of a successful North London Derby. And then, nothing. Smith Rowe would not make another appearance until March 1, when he once again came off the bench at Everton. Three days later, he played 47 minutes in that iconic 3-2 win against Bournemouth. He did not feature in Arsenal’s 3-0 victory at Fulham.
So it went for the remainder of the season — Smith Rowe would check into matches for a few minutes here and there, and then not leave the bench for a game or two. Rinse and repeat. It bears noting that he only featured in matches Arsenal had already convincingly won or surely lost. But when things were close, when the Gunners needed a match-winner, an equalizer, or just to hold on, Smith Rowe was not risked.
Unfortunately, the struggles of being eased back into action during the thick of a Premier League title run-in weren’t all Smith Rowe had to contend with. As the slow burn of his prolonged return frustrated more and more fans, claims regarding the player’s habits began to circulate on social media. Some took aim at Smith Rowe over perceived dietary indiscretions; just search “Smith Rowe Nando’s” on Twitter and you’ll get the picture. Others unfoundedly accused him of engaging in a partying lifestyle. And of course, when Smith Rowe had gone long enough without significant minutes, many began to wonder aloud if he had fallen out with Arteta and speculated on his future with the club.
The remarks regarding Smith Rowe’s culinary indulgences likely stem from an interview he gave in 2021 after being called up to the England national team. In this interview, the Hale End product mentioned that his guilty pleasures were chocolate and Nando’s. However, he also went on to reveal that Arsenal had assigned him a chef to prepare healthier meals. Unfortunately, many appeared not to take that into account when alleging that Smith Rowe had reverted back to poor eating habits.
As his body and the club’s caution forced the “Croydon De Bruyne” to effectively spend most of the season as a passenger, fans’ patience whittled away swiftly. Despite it being evident that a speedy return to full fitness for Smith Rowe would be rather unexpected, some quickly resorted to questioning his mentality. They concluded it was likelier that the club’s no. 10, who had risen through the ranks at Hale End and worked to impress on loan and establish himself in Arsenal’s senior squad at a young age, had simply given up and relapsed into prior issues than it was that the recovery process required a significant amount of time. It is an indictment, not of the player, but of those who claim to support him.
Make no mistake, a tough road lies ahead for Smith Rowe. The man whose name gets sung along so often with Saka’s has had to watch Martin Ødegaard take over his side of that partnership. Fábio Vieira and Leandro Trossard — both of whom can play in all the positions Smith Rowe can — have established themselves in the first team, particularly the latter. Kai Havertz has arrived from Chelsea as the likely starter at the left eight position. Even Thomas Partey and Declan Rice are possible alternatives further up the pitch. It is a crowded room.
Outside of breaking back into the eight positions, perhaps Smith Rowe can offer the physicality and touchline play to make him the best understudy for Gabriel Martinelli. Or maybe his linkup play and nose for goal can earn him a role as a potential false nine; Arteta has hinted multiple times in the past that it is a position he can see the Englishman in. Smith Rowe’s versatility allows him more options for re-establishing himself in the first team. But regardless, it will be difficult.
However, things are looking up for the 22-year-old. Almost two months ago, reports emerged stating that Smith Rowe would certainly be staying at Arsenal after the club confirmed he was still part of Arteta’s plans. He featured in all six matches England played in the U21 Euros this summer, scoring twice and assisting once during a championship-winning campaign. Last week, he joined up with Arsenal’s preseason tour in the United States. Smith Rowe came on as a substitute against Manchester United and produced an encouraging cameo.
The opportunity to be a key cog in this team, just as he was before last season, is still there for Smith Rowe. He will have to work hard. He will need to be better. But he knows that. And hopefully, if he encounters difficulties along the way, we will be better too.