All of a sudden, very quietly, Arsenal face a selection dilemma. It had been thought that might not be possible, with Arsenal down to 17 first team players. The names, after all, write themselves on the team sheet: Ramsdale; Tomiyasu, White, Gabriel, Tierney; Partey; Ødegaard, Xhaka; Saka, Lacazette, Martinelli. This has become Arsenal’s first choice eleven, though they’ve played fewer games as an entire eleven than you might remember. But Gabriel Martinelli’s suspension against Brentford allowed, if not for the re-emergence of Emile Smith Rowe, another reminder that he is one of Arsenal’s best players, and is really too good to be a substitute.
To be fair to Smith Rowe, and to Mikel Arteta, Smith Rowe’s stint on the bench has largely been to manage an ongoing muscular issue. It is easy to forget that this is Smith Rowe’s first season where he has been expected to participate nearly every week, whereas Bukayo Saka, for example, has essentially done that since the autumn of 2019. But, Martinelli’s suspension allowed for Smith Rowe to start only his second Premier League game in nine, and show his full range of quality, scoring his tenth goal of the season. The question now, with Wolves, a fairly important game on the agenda on Thursday, is how the hell can you drop him?
Smith Rowe had started in Arsenal’s last home league game, against Burnley. Then, he played as the left central midfield. Indeed, Smith Rowe hadn’t started on the left with Lacazette at centre forward since last season, but in replacing Martinelli, he largely mirrored Martinelli’s movement.
Smith Rowe, like Martinelli, is exceptionally good at carrying the ball, and making runs into the box, and we saw that with his goal. Yet, Smith Rowe also has the capability to get involved in combination play and creative play, and thus his passing from the left hand side was looking towards the inside:
We have seen Smith Rowe do this from wide areas and from central areas. That he can brings flexibility to Mikel Arteta, but also creates a dilemma: do you drop Smith Rowe or do you drop Martinelli—or someone else?
Arsenal’s system this season has switched to a 4-3-3. Whereas before, Arsenal would play a double pivot, Granit Xhaka is now slightly ahead of Thomas Partey, and more level with Martin Ødegaard on the right of the midfield three (which is why we have seen, then, Xhaka make more third-man runs). In practice, though, with how deep Lacazette drops, the system can switch to almost a diamond 4-4-2, with Saka and Martinelli wide forwards taking up more central positions in the channels, and Lacazette a de facto number 10. In that sense, it is hard to see Martinelli playing centre forward: while he may be a centre forward long term, his interpretation of the role would surely be different to how Lacazette plays, for having Martinelli drop deep to combine wouldn’t be the best utilizations of his strengths.
Yet, deploying Emile Smith Rowe as a false 9 could be one solution. While Smith Rowe might not hold the ball up as Lacazette can do, he can move more quickly, and can offer greater technical security and quicker ball movement. It would also get him closer to the triangle on the right hand side of Saka, Ødegaard, and the right back, supplied by Partey. Yet it would also allow him to combine with Martinelli on the left, and it could be one way of juicing Arsenal’s attack.
Another option would be to utilize Smith Rowe as the left number 8, in place of Xhaka. Arteta, cautious as he is, and looking to develop having secured Arsenal’s solidity, may eschew this. But, Xhaka in a box to box role is an awkward fit, and it would change the passing that Arsenal can call upon from that position. On one hand, Xhaka has a larger range of passing than Smith Rowe, but Smith Rowe has a quicker pass, and perhaps greater variety, especially in this system. With crossfield passing quickly becoming the job of Partey, Gabriel, and Ben White, Xhaka’s passing has largely been diagonals to the left hand side. Smith Rowe could do that; he could also carry the ball, cause players to commit, and change the tempo. The balance of Smith Rowe and Ødegaard as dual eights is perhaps not all the way there—but against teams that come to the Emirates looking to bunker, and with Arsenal’s improved counter-pressing, it could be a worthwhile risk.
However, this selection dilemma, like many, could work itself out. It could also end up being a good problem to have: to be able to bring Smith Rowe or Martinelli off the bench gives Arsenal real game-changers, which will be valuable during the run-in. Arsenal, though, are very close to reaching a point where the structure and solidity provided by two of the senior players isn’t enough when it affects the level of talent of the starting lineup.