For most of their young lives, Bukayo Saka and Emil Smith Roi were inseparable. Saka joined Arsenal’s Hell and Academy at the age of eight; Smith Rowe was 10. The pair progressed through the youth ranks before combining with the club’s under-18s nearly five years ago, causing huge excitement around Arsenal’s London Colony training base.
Last month, Smith described Ro Saka as his closest friend in football. Now 22, he is 14 months older than Sakar but it was the latter who first broke into the senior setup under Mikel Arteta’s predecessor Unai Emery. Saka’s potential was clear early on but his introduction to regular first-team football was slow and he was an unused substitute in the 2020 FA Cup Final win over Chelsea.
By the end of that year, Arteta, in his first managerial role, was under pressure as the Gunners languished in mid-table. It was Boxing Day 2020 and the gloves were off. Poor form and a staccato style of play fueled Arteta’s criticism and he decided to try out the youth against Chelsea.
Saka was deployed in an unusual right-back position in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Smith Rowe opting for veteran Willian as a number 10 for his second Premier League start and young Brazilian Gabriel Martinelli on the left. Striker Alexandre Lacazette. Sakawas 19; Smith Rowe was 20. Together, they revived Arsenal as they beat Chelsea 3-1. The third goal was assisted by Smith Rowe and scored by Saka.
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At that point, their understanding reached a new level and served as validation of Arteta’s willingness to commit to youth that has now taken the Gunners to remarkable heights — leading this season’s Premier League table and 12 games away from a first title in nearly two decades. .. fans immediately took to the pair. A song soon followed, reworking the line from Status Quo’s “Rockin’ All Over the World” into “Here we go-woo, Saka and Emil Smith row.”
Yet of late, Saka has been doing the heavy lifting to maintain that song’s popularity. Although he has been at the forefront of Arsenal’s evolution to the extent that he is close to signing a major new deal with the Gunners, Smith Rowe’s career has stalled.
While Saka was lighting up England’s displays at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, Smith Rowe watched from afar. In that sense, they are perhaps more different than ever and the onus is on Smith Rowe to resume his own upward trajectory. The Europa League could offer a valuable return and Thursday’s round of 16 first-leg clash against Sporting CP is a good place to start.
Smith Rowe is yet to start a competitive game this season. Injuries have played a part in that: groin surgery to correct a chronic problem in late September ruled him out until after the World Cup, and a thigh problem prevented him from making his return against Oxford United in the FA Cup in January. But he had already lost his place to Martinelli before suffering fitness problems and Arsenal’s rapid development under Arteta included a tactical change from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3, which eliminated the number 10 position. Which he accomplished most.
Furthermore, the arrival of Martin Odegaard in January 2021, initially on loan from Real Madrid and then six months later on a permanent deal worth £30 million plus bonuses, gave Arteta another creative option similar to Smith Rowe. Odegaard has excelled as captain, starting all but one of Arsenal’s 26 league games so far.
Smith Rowe is certainly good enough to play at No.8 in place of Odegaard or Granit Xhaka, who has revived his own career in that position, but the deeper role exacerbates the need to stay on top of his conditioning, which has been questioned in the past. Arteta Smith was concerned about Rowe’s diet and after he received his first senior England call-up in November 2021, the midfielder admitted he was “a bit too lazy” to hydrate properly before matches, while the club helped him prepare his meals from chocolate Away and more from fish and pasta.
Professionalism is paramount under Arteta and any slip in those standards will count against Smith Rowe re-establishing himself in the first team. Last weekend’s 47-minute game against Bournemouth was notable for the midfielder’s ignominious status as a substituted substitute. Arteta explained that Leandro Trossard’s first-half injury forced Smith to introduce Rowe earlier than planned, but it is worth noting that he was withdrawn at a time when Arsenal were chasing the game and the forward options were short.
He had already provided an assist, steering the ball towards Thomas Partey to head in the first of three goals for Arsenal in a thrilling 2-0 comeback, but it was his replacement Reiss Nelson who provided the key assist for Ben White’s equalizer and then a stunning stoppage-time winner. Fake yourself. It should at least serve as motivation for Smith Rowe that current fringe players may be needed if the Gunners are to maintain momentum at home and abroad this season.
During his absence from the first team, Arsenal fans created a new song, just about Saka. To the tune of David Bowie’s “Starman,” they chant: “There’s a starboy, running to the right. His name is Bukayo Saka. And he’s doing — dynamite.”
Smith Rowe would no doubt prefer a return to the status quo, but it is up to him to change the tune.