Emile Smith Rowe has been without a Premier League start for so long. Jamie Carragher once labelled the 23-year-old as the finest dribbler in the Premier League, but he has spent the most of the previous 17 months either on the bench or in the treatment room.
But Smith Rowe finally returned to Arsenal’s starting XI against Sheffield United on Saturday, with Mikel Arteta giving him a rare opportunity against the Premier League’s basement club in the 5-0 win. His last start in the league had been a game that Arsenal fans don’t remember fondly: the 2-0 defeat at Newcastle to allow bitter rivals Tottenham to sneak into fourth in May 2022.
Since then, Smith Rowe has undergone groin surgery – missing a big chunk of last season – and Gabriel Martinelli has made the left flank his own. The Hale End graduate dropped further down the pecking order when Leandro Trossard arrived in January.
Although Smith Rowe got the nod on Saturday, he played in attacking midfield rather than out wide. He struggled to get on the ball in a congested part of the pitch, with Kai Havertz playing alongside him. It’s difficult for two players to squeeze into that position when they rarely play together.
Havertz, who often fails to make an impression alongside Martin Odegaard, will tell you as much. Smith Rowe ghosted around the pitch for 73 minutes before being replaced by Fabio Vieira, which is appropriate seeing as Halloween is just a few days away. His forgetful performance was emphasised by Vieira, who won and converted a penalty
Smith Rowe was full or praise for Arteta after September’s Carabao Cup win against Brentford – his first start for Arsenal in any competition for 499 days. “I have changed a bit of my mentality… just to go for it,” Smith Rowe said.
“I have not really got anything to lose. I have tried to change that inside me. I used to have a lot of doubts. I used to question my confidence, at times. But now I am really strong. I am feeling really fit and I am taking that into now.
“The gaffer has really helped me with that. He was helping me through my injury and often pulled me for chats about how I can be mentally stronger. I tried to support the boys as much as I could… it was really tough but I am stronger now.”
But there’s not much point of Smith Rowe staying at Arsenal if he’s glued to the bench or shoehorned into the side. He’s missed so much football during the last 17 months and, at his age, needs to be playing as much as possible.
The England international remains a hugely popular figure among Arsenal fans. He’s one of their own, after all.
But plenty of Premier League teams would love to take him on loan in January and give him a chance to shine in his best position. Aston Villa were interested in signing Smith Rowe before he agreed a new contract in July 2021, with Arsenal rejecting a £30million bid. He will enter the final two years of that deal next summer, which could be the right time for Arsenal to cash in.
Saying goodbye to the Emirates will be tough, but necessary. Smith Rowe remains one of English football’s most exciting youngsters… it’s time for him to remind us why.