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Smith Rowe trumps Havertz for Arsenal as Mikel Arteta handed midfield headache for title tilt

Smith Rowe trumps Havertz for Arsenal as Mikel Arteta handed midfield headache for title tilt

Emile Smith Rowe exhibited the qualities for Arsenal against Luton that Mikel Arteta hoped to see from Kai Havertz when he first signed from Chelsea. The academy graduate has given his manager a welcome headache.

Mikel Arteta made five changes from the draw with Manchester City – the most he’s made from one Premier League game to the next since 2021. It was Thomas Partey’s first start since August, Emile Smith Rowe’s third Premier League start of the season, and – incredibly – Reiss Nelson’s first since July 2020, albeit with one season on loan at Feyenoord. Asked ahead of the game about the impact significant alterations have had on his side in the past, it was clear Arteta recognised the risk.

“Sometimes not that good. Sometimes it’s unrelated to those changes and would have been the same. It’s very difficult to predict.”

With seven games to come in April, all of them “finals”, Arteta saw reliance on some of his second string as a necessity against the lowest-ranked team they have left to play this season. The risk paid off.

Luton completed a pass per minute for the first 15 minutes of the game, but it was in that period of Arsenal dominance that it became clear that this wasn’t set to be the cakewalk that the Gunners had enjoyed against the Hatters’ fellow relegation candidates. It took them four and five minutes respectively to open their accounts against Burnley and Sheffield United, but it took them 25 minutes – featuring nothing more than a couple of blocked pot shots from Oleksandr Zinchenko and Martin Odegaard – to break Luton’s resolve.

Kai Havertz played a perfectly weighted pass for Odegaard, who purposefully sliced the ball inside the near post. But Smith Rowe’s contribution will likely have pleased Arteta above all else, as he robbed Pelly Ruddock Mpanzu of the ball in midfield to start the attack.

Odegaard Havertz Arsenal

Martin Odegaard celebrated scoring a goal for Arsenal with Kai Havertz.

Once on a par with Bukayo Saka as academy graduates to build the team around, over the last couple of seasons Smith Rowe’s watched Arsenal go to strength to strength, typically from the treatment table. Few Arsenal fans – if any – would now have him in their first XI, but this display against Luton suggests he could be the player Arteta hoped to turn Kai Havertz into.

Now thriving in the false nine role, Havertz was signed as a replacement for Granit Xhaka, and both player and manager were criticised on the back of his early season performances, which saw him struggle to adapt on the left of a midfield three. In Arteta’s response to the German’s perceived lack of physicality, he spoke of the qualities he expects from whoever is operating in that position, exhibited by Smith Rowe in Arsenal’s opener and in assisting their second at the Emirates.

“You use the word ‘physical’ but if I put Granit and Kai (together) who is more physical? He’s (Havertz) 1.91m (tall). It depends what physical is. Physical is to run, to run in behind, run forward, to tackle, to defend. He will fit in with the qualities we have for sure.”

He shouldn’t have been allowed to get to the byline unchecked, and once there it was a relatively simple ball across the face of the goal that was turned into his own net by Daiki Hashioka. But Arteta – more so than most managers it seems – puts great value on runs in behind the defence from his midfielders, with this Smith Rowe dart an excellent example of how easily opposition teams can be split open through such physicality.

The interventions for both goals were typical Smith Rowe; examples of his quality that led people to question why Arteta was so desperate to land Havertz, who has indeed proven to be a good acquisition, but only after he reverted to the position he was most comfortable in at Chelsea, rather than the Xhaka role he was earmarked for.

Smith Rowe showed some signs of ring rust – to be expected given he’s played just 20 minutes of football since January – with his touch a bit off at times and his one presentable chance to score rather snatched at, despite Thomas Kaminski being forced into a decent save.

But after a game in which Arteta hoped the backups would do a job for the team before putting them back on the bench for Brighton and the sterner tests to come, Smith Rowe has given his manager something to think about.

He won’t start against Bayern Munich in the Champions League or at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, but faced with packed defences, when the solidity Jorginho or Thomas Partey provide at the base of midfield is surplus to requirements, a midfield trio of Declan Rice, Smith Rowe and Odegaard may be the best way for the Gunners to maintain their two-pronged challenge for titles.

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