Squad numbers mean nothing really and are just used to distinguish between players, right? If only that were really true.
Some clubs’ squad numbers have become iconic over the years, with Manchester United’s number seven, Newcastle’s number nine and Arsenal’s number ten in particular weighing on their occupiers for years following the success of previous owners.
Mesut Ozil, Jack Wilshere and, erm, William Gallas have all struggled to live up to the billing that comes with being handed Arsenal’s number ten shirt since the 2006 departure of Dennis Bergkamp, and next up to take the challenge is Emile Smith Rowe.
Being handed a new long-term deal at a club the size of Arsenal is a pretty huge compliment for any 20-year-old to be given, but being allocated the squad number of the legendary Bergkamp is arguably even greater.
Smith Rowe enjoyed a fine breakthrough campaign with the Gunners last season as Mikel Arteta put his faith in the Croydon-born midfielder. Well, we say he put his faith in him, if we’re honest it was more a case of he had no other option.
The England Under-21 international put in some impressive displays as the Gunners clawed their way to a disappointing eighth-place finish, but in all honesty the hype that’s surrounded him since isn’t really worthy of a player who bagged two goals and four assists all season.
Before you light the fires and get the pitchforks out, we’re not for a second saying he didn’t perform well – and given the performances of some of his more senior teammates he was definitely one of Arsenal’s standout players – we’re just saying the hype seems a bit much.
Arteta has already spoken openly about how he feels Smith Rowe will be central to the Gunners’ future plans, but nothing he could say would be more of an indication of that than handing him the number ten shirt.
Countless United and Newcastle players have buckled under the pressure of being handed their respective club’s iconic shirt number, and Arsenal’s decision to name Smith Rowe as their number ten after just 22 Premier League appearances is a massive gamble.
The move will likely go one of two ways; Smith Rowe will either puff his chest out, embrace the responsibility that’s been given to him and help drive Arsenal’s bid to be challenging for European football once again, or his knees will go weak every time he puts it on and the Gunners will ruin one of their more talented players.
Given his displays last season having only made two Premier League appearances prior to the 2020/21 campaign, it’s clear that Smith Rowe has the character and the maturity to cope with enormous pressure.
However, being Arsenal’s number ten is basically a coded message for ‘you’re our main man now, it’s all on you buddy’, and that’s a hell of a lot of responsibility to place on the shoulders of a man who’s barely even had time to find his feet at the top level yet.