How do Arsenal get the Best out of Emile Smith Rowe?
By Rob Worthington (Deputy Editor)
Understandable elation ensued within the Arsenal fanbase a few weeks ago following the announcement of Emile Smith Rowe's contract renewal. After a series of bids from Aston Villa were knocked back, Smith Rowe quashed any concern regarding his future by signing a deal which will keep the Englishman in north London till 2026.
Alongside the reward of the new contract, Smith Rowe was also handed a new number by Arsenal. The famous no. 10. The mere mention of the number instantly conjures memories of former Arsenal playmakers who donned the #10 jersey.
Dennis Bergkamp's name immediately springs to mind, arguably the greatest attacking midfielder the English game has seen. Assist king Mesut Özil of course wore the no. 10 shirt for a number of seasons too.
So, with the honour of wearing such a famous shirt number, a heap of responsibility is also placed on Smith Rowe's shoulders. There is an expectation within the Arsenal fanbase that Smith Rowe will become Mikel Arteta's side's creative beacon.
But is he really that type of player?
While he could indeed develop more creative tendencies in his game as he matures, right now, he's not a pure creator. This was evidenced by his low xA/90 of 0.17 last season, landing him in the 51st percentile in comparison to his fellow attacking midfielders in Europe's Top Five Leagues.
He is not an archetypal no. 10. Doubtless, he boasts many attractive attacking midfield attributes. He can press effectively, he can beat a man and he poses a more than decent goal threat. However, he is not a creative genius akin to many of the players who wore the no. 10 jersey before him.
What Smith Rowe needs is further creative impetus in and around him. Hence, when Arteta surrounded the youngster with the likes of Bukayo Saka, Martin Ødegaard and Dani Ceballos last season, Smith Rowe thrived. This was typified by victories against West Brom in January, Leeds in February and finally Spurs in March's north London derby. In these games, Arsenal fans saw the best of Smith Rowe.
This is why many fans have likened Smith Rowe to new Manchester City midfielder Jack Grealish. Both players offer immense technical quality, but neither of them are quite so effective when they are deployed in central areas.
Moreover, if they are positioned in the centre of the park, they tend to drift towards the wide half-spaces, leaving a gaping gap in behind the striker. Both Grealish and Smith Rowe enjoy their best football when they have a more creatively-oriented technical player occupying that pure no. 10 role alongside them.
That is why signing a new creative midfielder is of fundamental importance to Mikel Arteta's Arsenal. While Smith Rowe can of course operate in the no. 10 area to strong effect, it's not where he thrives most. Thus, he can't be relied upon to play such a role every week.
In addition, from Mikel Arteta's perspective, in an ideal world for the Spaniard, he'd have each of his players on the pitch operating in a role in which they are perfectly suited to. For Smith Rowe, that is not central attacking midfield. For Arsenal to truly unlock all that the youngster burgeoning with talent has to offer, it'd be advisable to move him to the left-wing.
Deploying the 21-year-old in such an area would not only be beneficial for him, but for the current Arsenal team as a whole. Arsenal's attack has looked worryingly unbalanced during pre-season with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang on the left flank. Adding a new creative midfielder and moving Smith Rowe to the wing would in all likelihood nullify the issue of a lack of balance.
So, while Smith Rowe may have been given the no. 10, that doesn't mean he needs to be planted in the position behind the striker for the rest of his career. After all, some of Arsenal's greatest ever #10s such as Robin Van Persie and Paul Merson weren't playmakers at all.
The answer is simple. Smith Rowe has to be given freedom to roam on the left channel with a a further creative midfielder to the inside right of him. That is how Arsenal are going to get the best out of Emile Smith Rowe.