Inexperience Arsenal's most valuable asset as investment in Willian looks wasted

Prospects Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka have injected life into Gunners' season

epa08929194 Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (L) of Arsenal celebrates with teammate Emile Smith Rowe after the English FA Cup third round soccer match between Arsenal and Newcastle United in London, Britain, 09 January 2021.  EPA/ANDY RAIN EDITORIAL USE ONLY. No use with unauthorized audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or 'live' services. Online in-match use limited to 120 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications.

When Mikel Arteta glances at the opposite dugout Thursday, he will be reminded of the theory that there is no substitute for experience. Roy Hodgson marked 45 years in management last week. He had won two league titles in Sweden before Arteta was born.

The meeting of the Premier League’s oldest and youngest managers can seem a simple case of experience against youth. Hodgson’s Crystal Palace have the oldest average age in the division this season, Arteta’s Arsenal the second youngest. And yet there are complications. Arsenal have been rescued by rookies of late. Their previous problems were partly attributable to an ill-fated experiment with the aged.

Willian is shaping up as the season's worst signing, a player who had the most deceptive of debuts. When he registered two assists and was involved in all three goals at Fulham in September, it was tempting to wonder if he would be Arteta's alchemist. Four months on, he has still not scored. His only shots on target in the Premier League have come against clubs who were in last season's Championship. An effervescent presence for Chelsea seems to have lost his energy; take away his running power and there appears little left. A three-year contract on colossal wages is shaping up to be a costly mistake, just as Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang embarked on his most barren spell in front of goal after signing his lucrative deal until 2023. Meanwhile, Arsenal have lost the last four league games David Luiz has started; at least their commitments to him end next summer. But they mortgaged their future in a bid to clinch Champions League football and slumped to 15th.

Saturday’s FA Cup tie against Newcastle was a microcosm of their season. Willian started and was utterly ineffectual, taking a place that could have been occupied by a more promising player. The introduction of Emile Smith Rowe was transformative. His surprise selection against Chelsea led to a run of four straight victories, Arsenal’s best of the campaign.

The 20-year-old has been directly involved in a goal every 73 minutes this season. He has brought movement and vibrancy to what seemed a static, pre-programmed side, starting from a central position to make looping runs around the defence. If Arteta’s tactics, either without a No 10 or with Alexandre Lacazette miscast as one, served to highlight his decision to exile Mesut Ozil, Smith Rowe has emerged as a more dynamic alternative, jolting Arsenal into life. The ‘Croydon De Bruyne’ hails from Palace territory; his excellence has raised the question if others of Arsenal’s next generation, such as Reiss Nelson, Eddie Nketiah and Joe Willock, should have been promoted ahead of senior figures who were struggling.


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The constant rays of hope have been Kieran Tierney, a relative veteran of 23, and Bukayo Saka, whose capacity to impress in a range of positions would render him invaluable, even if he were not just 19. The teenager has two goals and an assist in his last three league games, all from Willian’s supposed position on the right. He, Tierney and Smith Rowe have helped restore the 29-year-old Lacazette to form.

While the supposedly tried and trusted have otherwise looked tired and untrustworthy, the untested have passed their exams. Arsenal’s awful autumn means this has become a season of transition. Hindsight suggests they would have been better off treating it as such from the start, saving the money they have wasted on Willian for the future and using the space in the side to promote prospects. The Smith Rowe-led revival indicates they would have had more points, too. Sometimes, contrary to the cliché, inexperience can be an asset.