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Emile Smith Rowe - His importance to Mikel Arteta's Arsenal tactically dissected

To say it was a catastrophic first half to the 2020/2021 season for Mikel Arteta's side is an understatement. Lethargic in build-up, lacking creativity, and a team effectively void of ideas - there wasn’t much to be desired in Arsenal’s league performances, which resulted in the Gunners languishing in mid-table.But this came as a surprise as many envisaged the North Londoners kicking on after Mikel Arteta claimed his first piece of silverware back in August of last year. His unorthodox hybrid 3-4-3 was key in maintaining defensive organization and nullifying the attacking threats of the likes of Manchester City, Chelsea, and Liverpool.
But as time went on, the deficiencies within this formation were apparent in terms of offensive play. Opposing teams were happy to sit deep and remain compact in a low block knowing that Arsenal would struggle to create any meaningful opportunities.
Change was required but unfortunately, the Spanish tactician had to persist with the setup because of the lack of creators to choose from, which is why it was imperative that the hierarchy accepted his demands and signed Houssem Aouar.On Boxing Day, however, a lifeline was handed and it came in the form of Hale End graduate Emile Smith Rowe, who allowed Arteta to deviate away from a back three and transition his team into playing a 4-2-3-1; a system that the Arsenal boss began with when he took over back in 2019.The young English midfielder's first Premier League start came in an emphatic win against Chelsea at the Emirates, with the former Huddersfield loanee assisting Bukayo Saka for Arsenal’s third of the night.
Since then, he has gone onto demonstrate a level of maturity you wouldn't associate with many within his age group along with showcasing an array of skills.A crucial linkThe Croydon De Bruyne provided his side with a fundamental aspect that was missing prior to his inclusion, a creator who could thrive in between the lines.
The positions occupied by the 20-year-old enabled tighter distances between the midfield and attack as well as strengthening the connections to the attacking trio, who were frequently isolated under the previous formation.
Although there is the argument that Smith Rowe needs to improve on his ability to execute defence-splitting passes, he's still been an influential figure in tight areas, particularly with the way he attracts players towards him and opens up space for supporting teammates close by.
Nicolas Pepe's goal against Slavia Prague is a great example to illustrate this point.An advocate of progressionUnder the hybrid 3-4-3, Arsenal struggled with ball progression during build-up phases, which allowed opposing teams to hold their shape with relative ease.It was only until Smith Rowe came into the fold where the dynamics altered in a positive way. Operating primarily in the #10 role, Arsenal’s number 32 would frequently drop deep within the right half-space to receive possession and was tasked with quickening the transition from defence to attack by either driving forward with the ball or releasing passes quickly.Off the ball movementOne of Smith Rowe's strongest attributes is his superb off-the-ball movement. Arsenal have lacked someone with a similar profile to Aaron Ramsey, who would frequently break the lines with forward penetrative runs and look to get on the end of opportunities that may arise.
Joe Willock is renowned to be the most similar stylistically to the Gunners' former Welsh maestro but comparisons can also be made to Smith Rowe, whose desire to drive past the defensive line and make darting third man runs has added a new dimension to the team's overall final third play.Ball carryingCreativity can arise in many different ways, one of which is the use of ball carrying -
an aspect Smith Rowe has injected into the team. His ability to drift out wide, infiltrate space and create numerical superiorities has promoted fluidity in forward areas - something which was lacking in his absence.
The driving runs he makes on the outside has allowed the right inside forward to move infield which is where they want to be rather than holding the width.
Advert InsertedWith Pepe encouraging with his performances since Christmas and Saka flourishing through the right, Smith Rowe has had a major impact in increasing attacking potency through this flank.VersatilityThe arrival of Odegaard in the January window meant that Smith Rowe was instructed to show flexibility. With the Real Madrid loanee preferred as the ’10’, this meant that the 20-year-old was tasked with a new role, as a wide playmaker through the left.But despite a positional change, he had no issues in adaptation and the partnership struck between himself and Kieran Tierney was threatening, with the North London derby at the Emirates a standout fixture where these two dominated the left flank.
Within the final third, the dynamic Scotsman effectively acts as a left-winger in possession, maintains width, and stretches the opposition defence, allowing Smith Rowe to feature predominantly within the left half-space.
The right and left-footed combination ensured that balance was retained and the strong chemistry developed between the two opened up the possibility for fluid interchanges, with Tierney at times dropping deep and Smith Rowe making a smart blindside run.Final thoughtsIt's fair to say that Smith Rowe has been the catalyst in Arsenal's upturn in performances and results. Statistically, since moving to a 4-2-3-1 only Manchester City have accumulated more points than the Gunners, further emphasizing the clear improvements made since changing systems.
The expectation is that Smith Rowe will continue his fine form into next season, but where he will be deployed depends on incomings.
Arsenal have been linked with moves for both James Maddison and Houssem Aouar, two players with desirable profiles but perform at their best in different positions.Starting with Aouar and Arsenal's interest in the player is no secret, as it was very clear that Arteta wanted to acquire his services last summer.
Close touch control, ball carrying capabilities, brilliant in tight spaces, excellent between the lines, and very creative - the France international possesses a plethora of qualities and for just £25 million, it makes perfect sense to pull the trigger.
During his time for Lyon, the 23-year-old has demonstrated positional versatility but within Arteta's current system, he'd slot perfectly on the left of the front three, acting as a playmaker. This would mean that Smith Rowe would operate just behind the striker and continue his role of building partnerships with the right inside forward.Maddison on the other hand is tailored to a central position. In terms of attributes, the Leicester City midfielder strikes the ball sweetly, is a danger on set pieces, is capable of playing incisive passes, and provides goals from midfield.
On the flip side, the heavy price tag he holds along with the inconsistencies in performance levels since arriving at the King Power are certain reservations Gooners may have over his potential signing.
Maddison’s presence within the starting eleven would result in Smith Rowe playing through the left, but as shown by his performances last season, this is a role that he would certainly relish.Hope you enjoyed the read! Please comment below as I'm intrigued to know your thoughts.