For the majority of their young lives, Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe have been inseparable. Saka joined Arsenal‘s Hale End academy aged eight; Smith Rowe was 10. The pair advanced through the youth ranks before coming together around five years ago in the club’s under-18 side, triggering widespread excitement around Arsenal’s London Colney training base.
Last month, Smith Rowe described Saka as his closest friend in football. Now 22, he is 14 months older than Saka but it was the latter who broke into the senior setup first under Mikel Arteta’s predecessor Unai Emery. Saka’s potential was clear early on but his introduction to regular first-team football was gradual 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 mounting pressure with the Gunners languishing in midtable. It was Boxing Day 2020 and the gloves were off. Poor form and a staccato style of play had heightened criticism of Arteta and he decided to give youth a try against Chelsea.
Saka was deployed in an unusual right-sided position of a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Smith Rowe selected over the experienced Willian as No. 10 for only his second Premier League start, and young Brazilian Gabriel Martinelli on the left behind striker Alexandre Lacazette. Saka was 19; Smith Rowe was 20. Together, they reignited Arsenal, beating Chelsea 3-1. For the third goal, Smith Rowe assisted and Saka scored.
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In that moment, their understanding reached a new level and served as a validation of Arteta’s willingness to entrust youth which has now taken the Gunners to remarkable heights — leading this season’s Premier League table and 12 games away from a first title in almost two decades. The fans took to the pair immediately. A song soon followed, reworking Status Quo’s “Rockin’ All Over the World” to feature the line “Here we goo-ooo, Saka and Emile Smith Rowe.”
Yet of late, Saka has been doing the heavy lifting in maintaining the popularity of that chant. While he has stood at the vanguard of Arsenal’s evolution to the extent he is close to signing a large new contract with the Gunners, Smith Rowe’s career has stalled.
When Saka was illuminating England‘s displays at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, Smith Rowe watched from afar. In that sense, they are probably further apart now than they have ever been and the onus is on Smith Rowe to resume his own upward trajectory. The Europa League may offer a valuable route back and Thursday’s round of 16, first-leg clash against Sporting CP is a good place to begin.
Smith Rowe is yet to start a game in any competition this season. Injury has played a significant role in that: groin surgery to correct a longstanding issue in late September ruling him out until after the World Cup and a thigh problem hampering him building on his return against Oxford United in the FA Cup back in January. But he had already lost his place to Martinelli prior to suffering his fitness problems and Arsenal’s rapid development under Arteta has included a tactical tweak away from 4-2-3-1 to 4-3-3, which removes the No. 10 position in which he is most accomplished.
Furthermore, Martin Odegaard‘s arrival in January 2021, initially on loan from Real Madrid and then in a permanent deal worth £30 million plus bonuses six months later, gave Arteta another creative option broadly similar to Smith Rowe. Odegaard has excelled to the extent he is now captain, starting all but one of Arsenal’s 26 league games to date.
Smith Rowe is certainly adept enough to play as a No. 8 in place of either Odegaard or Granit Xhaka, who has revitalised his own career in that position, but the deeper role heightens a need to stay on top of his conditioning, which has been questioned in the past. Arteta had been concerned about Smith Rowe’s diet and after he received his first senior England call-up in November 2021, the midfielder admitted he had been “a bit too lazy” to hydrate properly before matches, while the club helped prepare his meals, turning him away from chocolate and on to more fish and pasta.
Professionalism is paramount under Arteta and any slip in those standards would count against Smith Rowe re-establishing himself in the first team. Last weekend’s 47-minute outing against Bournemouth was notable for the midfielder suffering the ignominious status of a substituted substitute. Arteta explained that away by a first-half injury to Leandro Trossard forcing Smith Rowe’s introduction earlier than planned, but it was nevertheless noticeable that he was withdrawn at a time when Arsenal were chasing the game and short on forward options.
He had already provided an assist, steering the ball towards Thomas Partey to head in the first of Arsenal’s three goals in a sensational comeback from 2-0 down, but it was his replacement Reiss Nelson who put in the key assist for Ben White‘s equaliser and then netted a stunning stoppage-time winner himself. That should at least serve as inspiration for Smith Rowe that the current fringe players may all be required if the Gunners are to last the pace at home and abroad this season.
During his absence from the first team, Arsenal supporters have formulated a new song, just about Saka. To the tune of David Bowie’s “Starman,” they chant: “There’s a staaarboy, running down the right. His name’s Bukayo Saka. And he’s f—ing dynamite.”
Smith Rowe would no doubt prefer a return to the status quo, but it is on him to change the tune.