Emile Smith Rowe or Gabriel Martinelli? or both?
By Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)
Emile Smith Rowe demonstrated everything there is to like about him last Saturday afternoon at the Emirates. On the 50 minute mark against Thomas Frank's Brentford, after a half where Arsenal had dominated territory and possession but had lacked penetration or a real cutting edge, the Hale End graduate drove forward with the ball, jinked inside and curled beyond the outstretched David Raya. A brilliant goal encapsulating Smith Rowe's technical quality, but also his willingness to take the initiative.
The goal set the tone for a controlled half of football, where Arsenal continued everything they'd done well in the first 45, but with more precision and ruthlessness. The result saw Mikel Arteta's men win the second of their 17 'cup finals' and close the gap on the top four.
Aside from the goal, this performance from Smith Rowe personified his tactical versatility. This system Arteta stumbled upon in mid-December has been reliant on the goal threat, direct running and pressing provided by Gabriel Martinelli. With Martin Odegaard and Lacazette the central facilitators, there has been on an onus the wide players to provide the shots and goal threat. While Saka's role sides more with the carefully constructed creativity, the left side is supposed to serve as a more gung ho and direct operation.
In the first half, we saw Smith Rowe's more natural tendencies. The midfield esque traits he has acquired from largely being a 'midfielder' rather than a 'forward' up to this point in his career saw him look to link play with quick short passing and playmaking. The ball carrying directness was void from our play in this 45 minutes, and that was largely due to Martinelli's absence.
However, there was a stark difference in the second period. Smith Rowe was clearly instructed to act more like this 'wide forward' by Arteta, and we saw this instantly with the opening goal. From that point, he began to do more Martinelli things- chasing long balls, being the receiver rather than the supplier and carrying the ball forward to progress us up the pitch at every opportunity. This tactical change was a huge factor in the increase in effectiveness in our final third play in the second half.
Smith Rowe's demonstration of adaptability to new roles has exacerbated the ongoing debate as to who should hold down the left-hand side on a regular basis. The Hale End graduate or the Brazilian wonderkid? Or both? Admittedly, it's not as binary as this. Different games need different types of players, so asserting an absolutely definitive pecking order isn't really necessary, particularly in a squad that will likely have plenty of games next season.
However, for the rest of this season, there will most likely be a relatively consistent starting 11 thrust onto the pitch, given the sparsity of fixtures left and the benefits of continuity in personnel. Although you'd expect Arteta to approach it on a game-by-game basis, one or the other is likely to take the bulk of the remaining minutes.
Martinelli on the left
Well, there are reasons to favour this deployment. Martinelli has started 8 of Arsenal's last 9 games, all on the left, missing only last week's game against Brentford due to suspension. This run of games has seen Arteta's side claim 22 points from a possible 27 and place 2nd in the xG difference per 90 table within this time frame, behind only Liverpool. Yes, we have played better than City in the last 9 fixtures.
Martinelli is a big component of the success of this period, in this new system. As aforementioned, he provides direct running, ball carrying, loads of shots and intelligent off the ball movement in this position. Given the roles of Saka, Lacazette and Odegaard, it's imperative that Martinelli provides these traits to the side. There may be a perception that his attributes are suited to teams that allow lots of space in the attacking third, but his pressing is also another huge factor in enabling us to play the way we do against low compact blocks. His ability to press and thus win the ball back quickly allow us to suffocate the opposition and dominate territorially, amounting to relentless pressure. This has been evident in recent games against Wolves.
Smith Rowe on the left
Despite all the qualities Martinelli does bring to the side, there are a few attributes that the Brazilian lacks. Most vividly is the technical security in possession and the build up. He is currently passing at 70% this season, while causing 4.2 turnovers per 90. Comparatively, Smith Rowe is passing at 85%, while causing just 3.46 turnovers per game.
In terms of maintaining possession and enabling sustainable and relentless pressure in attacks, Smith Rowe is more capable of facilitating the build up play. When faced with penetrating a low block, this patience on the ball and ability to keep hold of it in tight areas is very valuable. Furthermore, the Englishman is more adept at linking play, combining with his overlapping full-back and still offers marginally more ball carrying (6.86 progressive carries per 90 compared to Martinelli's 6.52)
Conversely, if you do require the more direct style that Martinelli possesses, then you can instruct Smith Rowe to do so. As shown in his second half display against Brentford, he is able to do these Martinelli things, just perhaps not to the same level. Is Martinelli capable of reverting to Smith Rowe's more ball retention based approach if that's what's required within a game?
There is a tendency to suggest, why don't we just try both? And while I'm certainly here for it being experimented, given what we have is working and given the magnitude of the fixtures we have, is there any point in changing it? Don't try and fix a problem you don't have.
If this were FIFA, of course you'd just put both in. However, real life doesn't work like that. Systems are a sum of their parts and every other member of this system is pivotal to it functioning. Odegaard is vital for the role he plays, operating in that right-half space, linking play, feeding Saka, progressing the ball and creating shots. Saka is vital in dominating the right-hand side, creating opportunities by going both on the inside and out, while also managing the bulk of our shots now a days. Both are undroppable.
Xhaka and Lacazette, despite structurally being integral to the system, are where you'd possibly consider switching things up. Smith Rowe could potentially operate in Xhaka's left-half space role, enabling Martinelli to stay on the left. He has the ball retention abilities of Xhaka, while also possessing substantially more mobility to play in this role, as well as more creativity and goal threat. Against weaker sides at the Emirates, this is a plausible option. However, against stronger sides that carry more threat, I'd be conscious of what this personnel may do to us without the ball. We've also seen a midfield three of Thomas Partey alongside Odegaard and Smith Rowe on occasions and it hasn't really been fruitful.
The other option is of course to drop Lacazette and put Martinelli down the middle, with Smith Rowe on the left. Martinelli has played as a number nine previously for us, and to great effect. In his debut season under Unai Emery, he scored the bulk of his 10 goals for the campaign down the middle. However, these were largely against lesser teams in cup competitions, and he's yet to prove he can play this role at Premier League level. While he'd certainly offer more goal threat than Lacazette is providing right now, we'd probably miss the physicality the Frenchman brings to the role, as well as his ability to drop into the spaces and get involved in the build up.
Ultimately, there's no obvious solution to this very healthy and comforting 'problem' we have. There's no point bemoaning whatever Arteta opts for on a game to game basis. They'll both get minutes and they'll both keep developing. Just enjoy our young talents.