There was once a time when Emile Smith Rowe appeared to be the lynchpin of Mikel Arteta’s project.
Some would argue that his integration into the starting XI saved the Spaniard’s job at the end of 2021. Following a seven-game winless run in the Premier League, Smith Rowe made his first league start on Boxing Day against the favoured Chelsea. Defeat that day may have consigned Arteta to the chop, but the Gunners, emboldened by Smith Rowe’s exuberance, prevailed as 3-1 victors.
The Hale End graduate brought a renewed sense of purpose to Arsenal’s possession play. He would end the 2020/21 campaign with 14 goal contributions in all competitions, and his form culminated in a new deal ahead of the following season and a shirt number change. Arsenal had a new #10 in town.
There was initial vindication as Smith Rowe starred during a hugely promising 2021/22 season which faltered down the stretch. Arteta’s project was starting to gather pace, and Smith Rowe was one of the leading protagonists. The dynamic playmaker ended 2021/22 with ten Premier League goals as an improving Gunners barely missed out on the top four.
Emile Smith Rowe is running out of time in an Arsenal shirt
Call-ups to Gareth Southgate’s England squad started to arrive off the back of Smith Rowe’s fine domestic form, but the heights of 2021/22 now seem a distant memory for the Englishman.
2022/23 was a write-off after he underwent surgery to fix a nagging groin issue. Once he returned, initially in January 2023 after a four-month absence, Arteta had found a new set of trusted confidants. There was no displacing Granit Xhaka and Martin Odegaard in the #8 roles, while only Gabriel Martinelli could perform the isolated wide left role to the requisite standard.
There was no longer room for a fluid #10 of Smith Rowe’s nature. The evolution of Arteta’s project was seemingly passing the creator by.
Fitness issues plagued the remainder of Smith Rowe’s campaign as he made just one Premier League start which lasted 47 minutes. There was little by way of promise, but supporters continued to stick by the academy graduate who’d ignited their current era of prosperity.
Despite his injury woes, Arsenal never considered selling the 23-year-old in the summer, but 2023/24 was, and still is a make-or-break campaign. So far, Smith Rowe has failed to convince. Although, his stock was trending upward before he made his first league start of the season at the weekend in the 5-0 beatdown of Sheffield United.
Smith Rowe wasn’t at his best, but he notched an assist in the thrashing.
With Arteta still struggling to fill the void left by Xhaka in midfield, it seemed as if Smith Rowe’s time was arriving once again. A Carabao Cup tie was the perfect opportunity to get back-to-back starts under his belt for the first time in an age, but, you guessed it, the injury bug struck again.
“We have an issue with him. He felt something in his knee and started to feel some pain after the game. We are assessing him, but [it’s] a big worry with him,” Arteta said ahead of kick-off on Wednesday night. Brilliant.
Smith Rowe is expected to miss several weeks as a result of his knee issue, and with the January window already looming, you can’t help but think the playmaker’s days are numbered in an Arsenal shirt. If the Gunners want to pursue Ivan Toney or Pedro Neto in the winter, funds will have to be raised, and Smith Rowe may well have to be sacrificed. The Englishman simply hasn’t shown enough since the start of 2022/23 to suggest he’s capable of keeping up with the pace at which Arteta’s project is evolving.
Nobody wants to see this happen, but it might just have to.