Smith Rowe won’t be rushing back – but talent means he’s still a huge asset to Arsenal
Almost exactly a year ago, Emile Smith Rowe scored a goal and registered an assist in a 3-1 derby win over Tottenham Hotspur. Arsenal fans had become fully aware of his importance to the team since he broke into the team in December 2020, but this performance helped announce it to the rest of the league.
A series of sparkling performances saw international recognition follow. In November, Smith Rowe earned a first call-up to Gareth Southgate’s senior team. Four days after making his international debut in a 5-0 win over Albania, he came off the bench to score his first England goal against San Marino. Inevitably, given his quality and versatility, rumors of a place in the World Cup began to circulate.
Nine months later, that conversation has calmed down considerably. In some ways, the 22-year-old’s fortunes depended somewhat on this November 2021 international break. Before making his bow in England, he started 10 of Arsenal’s 11 Premier League games. Of the remaining 27, he started just 11. Injuries weren’t a real problem – he only managed to make the squad for three of Arsenal’s 38 top appearances. The biggest problem has been the emergence of Gabriel Martinelli as a regular starter on the left side of Arsenal’s attack. When Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang came out from the side, Mikel Arteta needed someone to replicate that threat behind.
On the other hand, Smith Rowe has been a victim of his own success: he has demonstrated his ability to be an effective substitute, scoring at one point in three consecutive Premier League games after coming off the bench (against West Ham, Leeds and Norwich in December 2021). It spoke to his football intelligence, but Smith Rowe would undoubtedly have preferred to be in the starting XI.
This season started slowly for Smith Rowe. A pre-season injury meant he started the 2022-23 campaign out of reach, and he has yet to start any of Arsenal’s six Premier League games. He has played just over half of football so far. It’s now been 11 starts in 33 league games since his England debut.
This time around, Smith Rowe’s physical condition played a part in his absence. Athleticism David Ornstein has reported seeing him come to a halt during the warm-up after Arsenal’s last Premier League game, against Manchester United.
🚨 Emile Smith Rowe appeared to come to a halt with injury during Arsenal’s warm-up. The 22-year-old attacking midfielder looked distressed as he was dragged back to the locker room by #AFC assistant coach Carlos Cuesta, while the other substitutes continued their session @TheAthleticUK #MUNARS pic.twitter.com/rz9TKGr6Yt
— David Ornstein (@David_Ornstein) September 4, 2022
The good news, from Arsenal’s perspective, is that Smith Rowe is not suffering from a muscle injury. He is experiencing growth-related groin pain. He has already suffered from this problem during his loan spell with RB Leipzig. This limited him to just half an hour of football in half a Bundesliga season.
While not classified as an “injury” per se, Smith Rowe’s situation requires careful management. He won’t be in a hurry. Although there is no deadline for his return, the club and the player’s entourage do not believe this situation will lead to a long-term absence. They also don’t think it will affect his bid for a World Cup spot.
However, with each passing week and each game he doesn’t start, those hopes are fading a bit. In the short term, Smith Rowe’s aim must be to reclaim his usual place at Arsenal. Without it, his chances of rejoining Southgate’s team look slim.
If he can control his level of pain, there are good opportunities on the horizon. Arsenal’s Europa League group stage is underway. While Arteta largely tends to pick nearly identical Premier League XIs, the continental competition provides a platform for Arsenal’s remaining players to stake their claim. The Europa League is the competition in which, under Unai Emery, Smith Rowe first had a real impact on the Arsenal squad. Now this could be his route to the Premier League XI.
Then there is the possibility of him playing in different positions. Last season, Smith Rowe was usually used as a striker on the left side. However, his versatility gives Arteta other options. He can play right, down the middle and potentially even as a false nine. Perhaps most intriguingly, Arteta has twice named Smith Rowe as a potential option as a No.8. Arsenal are relatively light on options in central midfield, and whether Smith Rowe can demonstrate an ability to play there , there are plenty of minutes available.
The reality is that Arsenal need Smith Rowe. During the final week of the transfer window, the club considered moving both a wide forward and a central midfielder. In the end, they weren’t able to add either. It was disappointing news for Arsenal, but arguably good news for Smith Rowe, who could benefit from both positions.
Every time a player lacks a bit of form or physical condition, he is called into question. But those who work closely with Smith Rowe have no doubts about his quality – in recent weeks Kieran Tierney has named him the most gifted player in training. In the documentary All or Nothing, Granit Xhaka calls Smith Rowe “the future here”. Last summer, Arsenal rebuffed interest from Aston Villa to sign him on a new long-term deal, handing him the No.10 shirt in the process. This suggests that they see things the same way.
Smith Rowe’s time with Arsenal – and indeed England – will no doubt return. The first step is for him to find a way to manage his pain. When he’s on the pitch, his quality speaks for itself.
(Top photo: Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)