It is no coincidence that Arsenal’s resurgence in the Premier League coincides with the emergence of exciting young playmaker Emile Smith Rowe.
Having been on the bench in defeats to Burnley and Everton before Christmas, the 20-year-old was unleashed in the 3-1 win over Chelsea on Boxing Day – which resurrected Arsenal’s season – and he assisted one of the goals in a 65-minute performance.
Since then, the Gunners have remained unbeaten, keeping five clean sheets in succession for the first time in nearly 12 years, but it’s their new-found creativity in the final third which has Arsenal fans purring again.
Three assists in five Premier League outings for Smith Rowe has fans dreaming of a home-grown No.10 in the same week Mesut Ozil finally left the club under a cloud of underachievement at the end of his seven-year reign at the club.
Having been their marquee playmaker for most of his time at the club, Ozil underwhelmed more often than not, but, as the club moves on, bookmakers are already taking bets on who will be next to wear the No.10 shirt for Arsenal.
Smith Rowe is a 10/1 outsider to be wearing the famed squad number next season, but with pundits such as Gary Neville already comparing him to Arsenal great Robert Pires, perhaps that Ladbrokes price is worth a punt.
However, he is just 20 years old and only has a handful of Premier League games under his belt, so is it too soon to start talking of the youngster as the next great Arsenal playmaker?
“I would suggest that it’s an area Arsenal are looking at in the transfer market, whether it be now or for next season,” former Gunners defender Nigel Winterburn told bookmakers.co.uk.
“Mikel Arteta might want to wait until he gets a few more faces out of the club before addressing it, but Emile Smith Rowe might be making him think that maybe he can hold off until the summer because this young man is progressing.
“If he is to continue to make strides then yes, in the short-term at least, let him fill the role and see where he is at the end of the season and Arteta can reassess his squad.
“We’re all excited at the moment but it’s just a short period of time and the acid test comes at a later stage. If he’s still doing the things he’s doing now in two years’ time then we’re all going to get even more excited.
“I still think they might look at that creative midfield area just to give them another option. But at the moment, he’s given Arteta a massive problem, but a nice problem. He’s performing at a very high level and offers something different.
“The manager will know his player’s temperament, whether he can deal with the added pressure of playing week-in-week out in the Premier League, and those are the judgements that the management staff will know and have to make as the player develops ahead of next season.”
A word of caution from the former Gunners left-back, but Smith Rowe’s rise to the first team is no surprise to him – and Winterburn reckons Arteta can’t possibly drop him on current form.
“He’s somebody that I’ve been watching for a little while now,” he said. “People at the club brought him to my attention, saying he was a player for the future.
“Then he got a couple of injuries and [Bukayo] Saka burst on to the scene, so he sort of got forgotten about a little bit, but then he got thrown in when Arsenal had some players missing and rightly so.
“His performances are getting stronger and stronger. He’s a player who offers something slightly different to what Arsenal already have in the team at the moment.
“So I’m just hoping that his confidence is going to keep building and building. Obviously, he’s going to have little dips on the way but if he can keep that level of performance going then eventually that will essentially say to the manager ‘leave me out if you dare’.
“And that’s exactly what he’s done. He has to be selected at the moment, he cannot be left out.
“All you can do as a player is put the performances in and give the manager no choice. That’s what Saka has done and that’s what Rowe is now doing.”
Age Just A Number?
Indeed, 19-year-old Bukayo Saka is one of the brightest prospects in the Premier League with his performances over the past year propelling him into the England set-up, and Rowe Smith won’t be too far behind him if he can maintain his form says Winterburn.
“They’re almost becoming the first names on the team-sheets, which is so exciting,” he said of Saka and Smith Rowe.
“If you’re playing well enough, age doesn’t matter. It’s great to see young players coming through after what has been a difficult few years for Arsenal, and particularly on the back of the Christmas period which was a really tough time for Arteta.”
Meanwhile, Ozil has been released by the club to pave the way for his imminent move to Fenerbahce and Arteta will be grateful of the extra funds available which had been poorly utilised on the former Germany international’s enormous wages.
Winterburn is also breathing a sigh of relief and although he rates Ozil as a player, he’s happy to see an ugly situation resolved with the 32-year-old having spent the latter stages of his Arsenal career ostracised from the first team.
“That’s the end of Mesut Ozil at Arsenal and now when things go wrong – and things will go wrong again – we won’t be debating whether Ozil should be in the squad, we’ll have much fresher subjects to talk about,” he told bookmakers.co.uk.
“It’s the right thing. You can’t have someone around a club who’s got huge talent but is just not working for you, you have to get them out and move them on.
“I think he’s got terrific talent, I’ve said that all along. He’s played a key part in some of Arsenal’s success but over the last two or three seasons it’s gone downhill for him.
“It didn’t look like he fitted in to Mikel Arteta’s plans. Whether he didn’t want to do the work that Arteta was demanding from him, I don’t know, but his body language didn’t look quite right.
“If you don’t fit into a system then you’ve got to individually perform to a level where the manager simply can’t drop you and force him to reconfigure the team around you, but unfortunately for Ozil his performances didn’t convince Arteta that that’s what he should do.”
And so as Ozil moves on, so too do Arsenal, who hope their new home-grown playmaker Smith Rowe can continue to light up the role and forge a long, successful career at the club.