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Smith Rowe and Ødegaard CAN Play Together: Here's Why

Arsenal’s heavy creative midfield links this summer were mainly regarding two names: James Maddison of Leicester and previous 6-month loanee Martin Ødegaard. A large part of the fanbase seemed to heavily favour the former, with a reoccurring argument against the Norwegian being that he hinders Emile Smith Rowe’s game, and that they simply cannot play together. This is an article looking to disprove that common misconception, which I believe many people cried out simply to try and bolster their claims that Maddison is the better player.A recurrent defence for this partnership posing a problem is that Emile Smith Rowe plays better through the middle. Without Ødegaard, Arsenal would likely set up in the same formation (4-2-3-1), but instead with Smith Rowe as the 10, and Saka and Pepe on the flanks. A big problem that contributed to the stagnation of Arteta’s attacking football in recent times, however, was the heavy reliance on forming our attacks down the left side of the pitch.At the 10, Emile Smith Rowe is a player who naturally drifts out to the left flank from time to time. With a front 3 of Pepe-ESR-Saka, this means that we have Tierney overlapping Pepe, with ESR also floating around the left half-space. With Xhaka in the left side of the pivot looking to dictate the game and progress the ball up the field, this left flank overload is overwhelming and hinders our overall game; we become predictable and too easy to read for opposition managers and players.When Martin Ødegaard enters the scene, our team becomes vastly more balanced. The way Mikel Arteta wants to set us up with our current crop of talent was apparent and highly effective in the recent North London derby which saw us defeat rivals Tottenham 3-1 following an emphatic first-half display.What sets up on paper as a 4-2-3-1 becomes a uniform 3-2-4-1 in attack. A back 3 of Gabriel, White and Tomiyasu, a midfield pivot with Xhaka and Partey, ahead of them is Tierney and Saka on their respective flanks on either side of Smith Rowe and Ødegaard, and Aubameyang spearheads the side.The reason this system worked so well against Spurs is because our players showed clear understandings of not only their roles, but also how to support each other’s. Smith Rowe tucking in from the left flank to allow Tierney to bomb forwards is crucial to a lot of our attacking build-up. On the other hand, Ødegaard has a natural comprehension of that right half-space, and Bukayo Saka’s best position is undoubtedly on the right-wing.Essentially, this means that Smith Rowe and Ødegaard playing at the same time doesn’t automatically require ESR to be shifted out to the left flank, but rather that they both roam the half-spaces. This allows for us to get the best of both worlds out of two highly talented players.Emile Smith Rowe has a relatively similar playstyle aesthetically to that of £100m man Jack Grealish. Both men are powerful and direct with the ball at their feet, looking to stretch the defence and advance their team forward. Ødegaard, on the other hand, likes more to dictate our attacking play. He has impressive vision, and he retains the ball very, very well. In essence, both men are progressive outlets, but they go about their business in starkly opposing manners.Advert InsertedOne particular pattern that I noticed was actually repeated in our two most recent North London derbies, in which Ødegaard and Smith Rowe bagged. When Ødegaard scored just before halftime to level the score in our home NLD last season, the pattern of play was as followed: Smith Rowe laid the ball off to Tierney out on the left, who took on the defender and played an inch-perfect ball to Ødegaard, who attacked it with his stronger left-foot and found the back of the net.Smith Rowe’s opener last weekend had a similar feel to it. Ødegaard picked up the ball and found Bukayo Saka out wide, who cut it back to an oncoming ESR right boot which fired home. In both scenarios, the other man was also hovering inside the box after playing the initial pass to commence the attack, which is particularly telling of their desire and hunger, especially in these big derby games.Many people have demanded more goal-threat from both ESR and Ødegaard, which is an understandable question mark considering they have generated a total of 0.25xG per90 over the past year (numbers via FBREF), however, this current system will really help to get the best out of both players judging by what we have seen already.Unfortunately, it remains to be seen if we will continue with this approach in the near future as a result of the 3-month injury to Granit Xhaka who appears vital in the pivot for this particular system. Sambi Lokonga has massively impressed so far in Arsenal colours, but whether or not he could operate in this role is something only time will tell.The partnership of Emile Smith Rowe and Martin Ødegaard is one that could really blossom in the future. For now, we are seeing the foundations being laid by Mikel Arteta and, with a bit more time together roaming the half-spaces, it could be one for the history books!The Arsenal Review is proud to support environmental sustainability through the revolutionary earth prize initiative. If protection of the environment is a cause that appeals to you, please make sure you check out the earth prize