Saka and Smith Rowe: Arsenal's biggest gift, Arsenal's biggest problem
By Mac Johnson (Senior Writer)
Disaster has struck London Colney! In a disastrous training ground incident, Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka clashed in a five-a-side drill under Mikel Arteta's tutelage this past week, with both players unable to stand unassisted after the challenge from Saka, who was marking his fellow Hale End graduate. Physios were immediately called to the scene, and both players were escorted to the club doctor. More news to follow.
Pretty much your worst nightmare, right? Yeah, mine too. Arsenal would be utterly scuppered without Saka and Smith Rowe in the lineup. Smith Rowe is our most-capped player this season, earning himself 1082 minutes over 14 of our 15 matches in all competitions. Saka, likewise, has the second-most pitch time, with 995 minutes over the same amount of matches. They have played three more matches than anybody bar Albert Sambi Lokonga, who has played 828 minutes over 13 matches, but only started nine, in comparison to the 12 starts earned by both of our English wonderkids.
However, their proverbial podium domination does not end with minutes played. Smith Rowe and Saka occupy the top two spots in nearly every statistical category that accompanies the creation of attacking chances. For those not versed in racing lingo, or the Olympics, that means they've come first and second as a pair, just as they have with minutes played.
Together lead the team together in shot-creating actions, goal-creating actions, completed passes into the 18-yard box, passes leading directly to a shot, carries into the final third and 18-yard box, total distance carried, progressive carries, and key passes. Forgetting live situations, they also take charge of corners and dead-ball scenarios, from which Arsenal have scored over half of their league goals this campaign—seven from dead-balls, six from live play. They are also the two players most targeted by their teammates, which demonstrates how heavily the rest of the squad relies on the pair to create chances.
Thanks to FBREF for allowing me to flood your brains with far too much statistical drivel. But my points stands. Without them, we'd be next to useless. And though we could plaster over this issue last season when Saka was doing this job on his own—Nicolas Pépé is a reasonable enough backup that losing Saka wouldn't utterly wash the team onto the dry docks—the same cannot be said now. Not only is the Ivorian completely out of form and out of favor, but the team's current style does not favor his style of play, especially in terms of defensive workrate and high pressing.
Because of their fledgling England careers, both with the U-21's and more recently at senior level, not to mention EURO 2020, the pair have been playing non-stop football since August, or in Saka's case, the beginning of last season. Given that the Little Chili was our most-capped outfield player last season, it's understandable he's given Smith Rowe the room to shine this campaign—it's an impossible level of performance to maintain.
And though Smith Rowe had his first true preseason in the past three seasons over the summer, and has changed both his diet and lifestyle to account for the increase in workload and responsibility according to Arteta, he is by far the more injury-prone of the two players. It was a bone spur in his groin that set him back at Leipzig, and various muscular detachments that have been his achilles heel since he resumed his time in England, first with Huddersfield, then back in London, and though he has been irreplaceable in our team since his return at the turn of the year, another setback isn't out of the question, given his volume of work at the moment.
In short, Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe are our greatest problem. It's an amazing problem to have, because they are both wonderful footballers, and a credit to both Hale End and the Arsenal badge, but by making themselves undroppable, they have also gifted Arsenal a massive problem in the depth department.
Pépé would be the first port of call to replace either of them, regardless of the side he would feature from, and Martin Ødegaard is a wonderful player in the centre of the pitch, were Arteta to return to his 4-2-3-1. However, I question what might happen if both were out. We would be stuck with one of Gabriel Martinelli, who I don't trust to play a consistent 90 minutes at left wing, or Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who would return to his roots as a winger for the first time in four or five years. Not exactly a recipe for success.
Frankly, any attacking trio without one of them would be lopsided and struggle to progress the ball, which is a testament to their influence on the team, but it's also important to remember that Saka and Smith Rowe still 20 and 21 years of age. They need time to develop without the pressure of the entire team on their backs, and the only way to allay that pressure is through recruitment.
Per reports, a big forward signing is next up for the Gunners, as early as January, but with prominent No. 9's feeding wheat to the rumor mill—we need one of those too, so I'm not particularly mad about it. A striker, that is, not a mill—it might be a long wait without rest for both of our starlets. However, I can't think of two players better keyed up to cope with such a difficult task. As it is American thanksgiving, I'll end this piece by simply giving thanks for the gift we have in Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe.
One last note. I'm noticing in post-edit that this piece bears a striking resemblance to Art de Roché's most recent piece on The Athletic. I recommend you all take a look at that if you are able; it's very well-written, and I enjoyed it greatly. I also apologize for any potential thoughts that I might be poaching ideas; I assure you all this was unintentional. And with that, I wish you all a happy start to the holidays! Cheers.