Never had there been such curdling games as Arsenal’s Europa League victories at the Emirates this season. Even when scoring six against Vorskla Poltava in September the match never raised above room temperature. So if there’s any criticism which could be labelled at Unai Emery’s new look side it is these tepid Thursday night affairs where Arsenal seem to stoop to their opponent’s level.
It causes the slick comb-back of the touchline puppeteer to gesticulate furiously with a turbine-like bluster capable of powering the small dungeon where he rehashes the match footage the following day. But if there is one streak of light to loom across yet another lukewarm game, it is, yet again and unmistakably Emile Smith Rowe.
Not once in Emery’s tenure has the ringmaster given free reign and roam to one of his players – as Mesut Ozil was so startled to find out. So perhaps the greatest and most noteworthy surprise of this bobbing dullard was that the wild waves of a manager consistently waving his arms as though the last bus is about to soar straight by, did not apply to the most excitingly naive player in his side.
In the reverse of this fixture a fortnight ago, Smith Rowe was syphoned into the rigorous wing position that has served the evolutionary blossom of Alex Iwobi so well. Yet, in the first ten minutes tonight, the 18-year-old had already rotated between all three positions in Arsenal’s front-three, sauntered along the halfway line with the typical swagger of a teenager his age, and bustled back when clearly unburdened of such a duty.
And for much of the first half hour – up until Danny Welbeck’s nasty injury – Smith Rowe lingered in forward positions which in a lesser team might have been occupied by a lumbering number nine. Not an altogether unfamiliar to the golden Ambrosia custard of Arsenal’s academy who enjoyed successful stints in such a role at London Colney, but one which shows Emery is still unsure about where the teenager’s talents best lie.
From tonight’s match, it seemed clear it was not however in the out-and-out striking role. Only once Aubameyang came on and he was restationed to his usual post did he look most comfortable. An innocuous dab to flick past Lisbon’s sprawling centre-backs, a smooth salsa of the hips to send his defensive marker down the wrong duel carriageway. This was where the endearingly driven teenager could command the game.
And that is the most remarkable thing about the academy starlet. Not these deft struts of skill which belie his immaturity, but the way even from the wing he is able to compose and command in Arsenal’s vastly more experienced midfield.
It is in this midfield role, drifting from wing-to-wing rather than box-to-box, where the senior figures in Arsenal’s backroom staff see his future. He is the type of player who thrives on allowing his innate footballing imagination to come forth when the ball is at his feet, not running to the byline.
His flashes of starlight bear similarity to Aaron Ramsey’s first impressions having joined the club as an 18-year old.
Three years ago, after Ramsey returned to the Gunners having helped Wales to their first major tournament for 58 years, the back pages were awash with whispers of Barcelona’s speculative interest – a small aperitif of praise from a senior player here, a sweet liqueur of loving admiration from the hierarchy there escalating into full wine and dine flow.
Ramsey’s current situation can bear as an acute reminder to the teenager, but if the hard-working nature which has allowed him already be given such responsibility by Emery is anything to go by, he too has every prospect of reaching the same echelon that made the welsh midfielder so sought after just a few year ago, and a lesson too from which he can learn.
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