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The ‘Croydon De Bruyne’ rides again – Emile Smith Rowe a secret weapon in Arsenal title bid

The Croydon De Bruyne rides again – Emile Smith Rowe a secret weapon in Arsenal title bid
Emile Smith Rowe has struggled for minutes in an Arsenal shirt this season - David Price/Getty Images

There was a moment in their 2-0 win over Luton that summed up Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal.

Moments after the home side had taken the lead, the visitors – a side for whom the concept of tame surrender is entirely alien – attacked at pace. And tearing back into the home penalty area to conduct a perfect sliding tackle on Andros Townsend, then come away with the ball, was Emile Smith Rowe. The same Smith Rowe who a couple of minutes earlier had dispossessed Perry Mpanzu in midfield, and torn forward to set up the move from which Martin Odegaard opened the scoring.

Yes, this was the very same Emile Smith Rowe who, in an extended absence since his last start for the side in January, has seen his nickname subtly shift from the Croydon De Bruyne of his early days to the much less complimentary Lesser Spotted Smith Rowe. After once appearing to be the future, this season he has barely been allowed to contribute to the present.

But instead of sulking about his lack of opportunity, here he seized his chance. In only his third start of the season he made a statement to his manager that he really should have been picked a bit more often. Which, naturally, is entirely what Arteta wanted. Unleash the competitive instinct in his replacements, rile them to prove him wrong and the benefit was all his.

As a piece of man management, it worked to perfection. This was what Arteta needed to keep his side in the hunt for the title: three points against game if limited opponents. Three points, moreover, accrued despite resting Declan Rice and Bukayo Saka. If it seemed an unnecessary gamble to start with Smith Rowe and Reiss Nelson instead of his reliable first choice, it worked to perfection. It proved precisely the right thing to do ahead of an intense run-in furred up with domestic and European showdowns at every turn: everyone onside, everyone up for the scrap, everyone ready to play their part.

“It is a joy to have them fit, to utilise the squad, maximise what we have,” said Arteta of his decision to start with his reserve midfielders. “It was the right moment to do it and they responded really well. They are going to be really important for us. When they have the moment they have to take it.”

The Croydon De Bruyne rides again – Emile Smith Rowe a secret weapon in Arsenal title bid
Smith Rowe celebrates after his assist for Arsenal's second goal - Jacques Feeney/Getty Images

As it turned out, then, a smart decision.

“It is not the right decision because of the result,” he pointed out. “I look at what they deserve and I was confident they would respond.”

The intimation of the manager was that Smith Rowe may well gain the opportunity to provide crucial interventions later on as the season reaches its climax. No wonder. Playing alongside the majestic Odegaard, he was alert, effortful, smart in his choices.

Sensibly, he did not try too hard. He did not attempt it all on his own, spraying Hollywood passes. He did the simple things quickly and smoothly. He passed and moved and prompted. Indeed, he was central to the build-up of both goals, his cross causing the panic in the Luton defence which allowed Nelson to poke the ball home for the second via the shins of Daiki Hashioka.

“I love him as a player,” said Arteta of his No 10. “It is a joy to watch him, how he moves, physically too without the ball. In that moment it is very difficult to stop him.”

And for the manager, it is very difficult to keep him on the bench. No wonder Arteta was smiling. He now has a real selection dilemma. Which is exactly what you want at the start of the season’s run-in.

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