Arsenal fans were growing impatient for Emile Smith Rowe’s first Premier League start of the season. The young Englishman is the only natural no. 10 in the Arsenal squad and therefore many tipped him to make a difference to a Gunners side devoid of playmakers. Pre-match, many considered Mikel Arteta’s choice to start him as a gamble, but his selection certainly paid dividends against Chelsea.
The most attractive parts of Smith Rowe’s game against Chelsea were the things he did instinctively. Popping up in cute pockets of space, collecting the ball on the half-turn and pressing ferociously. No other squad member capable of playing in-behind the striker naturally wants to perform these acts. Smith Rowe does.
Playing a man who thrives in the number 10 role consequentially impacted the game of those working in tandem. Smith Rowe constantly gave Granit Xhaka and Mo Elneny an option in between the lines and took a creative burden off Bukayo Saka who looked invigorated by the slight inventive onus taken off his shoulders. Alex Lacazette and Gabriel Martinelli also benefited from Smith Rowe’s innate tendency to look for the forward pass.
It wasn’t only Smith Rowe who played in a position which suited him well against the Blues. In fact, every Arsenal player on the pitch played in their favoured role. Bukayo Saka has always looked a threat on the right when given an opportunity out there, Granit Xhaka is at his best on the left-hand side of a double pivot next to a mobile partner and Kieran Tierney prospers in a back four. Credit to Arteta for this.
Perhaps Arteta’s refrained from deploying players in their preferred positions in recent weeks due to his attempts to strike the delicate balance of youth and experience. In an attacking sense, Pep Guardiola’s former assistant may have felt obliged to start Willian to provide the necessary offensive nous during his side’s barren spell. If such a notion has been playing on Arteta’s mind, it was emphatically removed yesterday.
The balance of younger and older players was simply perfect last night Wise heads surrounded the much talked about youthful trio of Martinelli, Smith Rowe and Saka. The youngest Arsenal defender on the field was Kieran Tierney at 23, a man who became a regular starter at Celtic aged 18, while Lacazette and Xhaka, both in their late-twenties, seemed to enjoy adopting key leadership roles.
Martinelli, Smith Rowe and Saka also contributed to a mature Arsenal display by performing like seasoned professionals themselves. Saka and Smith Rowe’s superb ball retention skills were shown to be significantly more impressive than most of those in their age group. Meanwhile, Gabriel Martinelli’s immense mentality is an indicator of a footballer playing far beyond his years. Commendation must go to both Arsenal’s talent spotters and academy for finding three players so well-suited to senior football.
The majority of players involved in the win against a strong Chelsea side have now rendered themselves undroppable. Mikel Arteta finally seems to have found a winning formula which just doesn’t need to be changed.
The youngesters on show yesterday portrayed to the likes of Willian, Nicolas Pépé and dare I say it, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang the playing standard that is expected at Arsenal. These senior options, among others, now have a battle on their hands to regain their places. It’s funny how just one game can instill such healthy competition.