The present has contained its problems for Arsenal but the future promises to be brighter. Their next generation have provided some of the optimism in their season and could save them millions in the transfer market.
Ian Wright was the last player to score four times in his first four starts for the Gunners; until Gabriel Martinelli's explosive introduction, anyway. Bukayo Saka has been a revelation after being reinvented as a left-back. Each should be seen on a Premier League pitch soon.
Emile Smith Rowe won’t be. Arsenal’s youngest scorer since Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and an Under-17 World Cup winner is instead focused on keeping Huddersfield Town in the second tier. Loaned to RB Leipzig last year, and briefly a teammate of Timo Werner, he has dropped down a division to take a step forward. Then, when his loan is over, he will look to emulate the young Gunners who have had breakthrough years.
“One of the main things was getting regular game time,” he said. “I felt confident coming here I would get the minutes I needed.” With eight league starts for Town – compared to just one for Arsenal and a mere 28 minutes of action in that injury-hit spell in Germany – he has.
He has also received an education, courtesy of the Championship. “It is very physical,” he said. “It was definitely a surprise to me when I first came. We played Brentford in my first game. I found it really tough and it is a physical league but at the same time there are still a lot of technical players.”
Smith Rowe is one of them. He has proved himself amid the physicality. He has been installed in the key creative role and has responded as Huddersfield have won on four of his eight starts to ease fears of demotion.
There is a theory that it is hardest to earn a place as a No 10, because many of the finest talents gravitate there. And many head for the Premier League, too. His is a doubly difficult task. “I like to be versatile and I can also play in other positions,” said Smith Rowe, also a winger. “But I probably would say I do enjoy playing in the No. 10 position the most.”
There is both an obstacle to his progress and a role model at his parent club. “At Arsenal, I look up to Mesut Ozil a lot,” he said. “I watch him in training and the movement he has and the little touches he does. For me to train with him every day, I can’t think of anything better.”
He is learning from others. A boyhood Arsenal fan has been on their books since he was 10, though his early heroes included "Invincibles" who played before then. “My dream was always to play for Arsenal,” he said. “I used to watch Thierry Henry a lot. Dennis Bergkamp was definitely a player I always looked up to. We play in a similar position. Freddie Ljungberg was there and he is working at Arsenal now, helping all the young players.” It was Ljungberg, in his interim reign after Unai Emery’s sacking, who gave Smith Rowe his only taste of Premier League football in December.
He also cast his gaze further afield in search of inspiration. "In that era when [Lionel] Messi, [Andres] Iniesta and Xavi were in the Barcelona team, I used to watch almost every game with my dad. Since Kevin de Bruyne joined [Manchester] City, I like to base my game around him. I look up to him so much. I just like the way he plays and everything he does." His top-flight debut came in a De Bruyne masterclass, with the Belgian scoring twice in City's 3-0 win at the Emirates before the Englishman came on.
Smith Rowe has contrasting educators now. Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta served a deluxe apprenticeship as Pep Guardiola’s assistant. Huddersfield’s managerial duo of Danny Cowley and brother Nicky are graduates of football’s school of hard knocks after working their way up from the Essex Senior League, the ninth tier.
“It is like a family here,” Smith Rowe said. “Danny has been amazing to me. He has taught me so much; Nicky as well. They have helped me every day. I watch clips with them before every game and it has definitely been different. I can’t thank them enough.”
Arteta has retained an interest from afar. Smith Rowe spent the break in London with his family, trapped in the south when restrictions on travel were announced. He had virtual contact with his Arsenal manager, who has been studying his efforts for Huddersfield. “We have kept in touch during lockdown and we have gone through some clips,” Smith Rowe said. “He has told me what I need to improve on.”
The decision to go on loan was made in consultation with Arteta. “He said that it is probably the best thing for me to go out,” he said. The sight of his peers performing, with Reiss Nelson, Joe Willock and Eddie Nketiah also afforded opportunities, gives him an incentive to impress. Nketiah scored a hat-trick and Willock one in Saturday’s 6-0 friendly demolition of Charlton. Arteta will trust in youthful talent.
“You can see he has given the young players chances and that is something all young players should thrive off. When you see others playing you want to push yourself and get in that position as well,” Smith Rowe said.
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It can feel as though Saka and Martinelli have overtaken him but the first player born in the 2000s to score for Arsenal is only 19. Some friendly competition is spurring him on. “I am obviously happy for all the other boys but I definitely want to go back and play as well. I think it will be great if more young players play.”
His own chance could come in autumn. “Nothing has been confirmed yet,” he said. “The main thing is to finish the season with Huddersfield as strong and as well as I can and then go back to Arsenal in pre-season and we will see what happens.”
Arteta’s approach, he feels, fits in with the Arsenal ethos. “Even when I was growing up in the academy there were always young players getting chances – Jack Wilshere, Alex Iwobi - so it is good at Arsenal.” At times, Arsene Wenger’s faith in youth proved a profitable policy. Now it could save Arsenal a fortune. “Definitely,” Smith Rowe said.
It is a club at a crossroads, a difficult balancing act rendered harder by the financial impact of coronavirus on finances. Arteta's ageing big earners Ozil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang are out of contract in 2021. Alexandre Lacazette's future is also the subject of speculation. The loanee Dani Ceballos is younger but due to return to Real Madrid this summer while Henrikh Mkhitaryan may not play for the club again.
Smith Rowe and his contemporaries represent the organic approach and the cheaper one as Arsenal try and navigate a period of transition but prioritising them could also be popular. “The fans love seeing young players play,” he said. They should have several to watch in the next few years. But for the next few weeks, Huddersfield will be benefitting from Smith Rowe’s precocious gifts.