Arsenal started their FA Cup defence against Newcastle fielding a mix of starters and benchwarmers, as Mikel Arteta looked to rotate his tiring troops.
What is striking is that two of those first-teamers combined ages comes to just 39.
19-year-old Bukayo Saka broke into the Gunners starting line up last year originally due to his outstanding Europa League performances. Stepping up to the Premier League was a breeze for him, where he was asked to play a variety of positions ranging from right forward to left-back.
After signing a new contract in the summer, the number 7 has now become instrumental in Arsenal’s up turn in form.
The other half of that duo is the emerging Emile Smith Rowe, the 20-year-old, who like Saka, developed through Arsenal‘s Hale End Academy.
It’s been a slower process to the first team for the roaming midfielder. His first-team debut came all the way back in 2018, in a Europa League group stage game against Vorskla Poltava. By January 2019, he was sent out to RB Leipzig on loan, but he was unable to make any kind of impact due to injury.
Last season he was again seen in different colours, this time closer to home at Huddersfield Town, where he played the second half of the 2019/20 season. In the penultimate game of the Championship, Smith Rowe all but saved the Terriers from relegation to League One, slotting the winner in a 2-1 victory over promotion-chasing West Brom.
This season, Arteta opted to keep the youngster at the club, revealing back in August his excitement about what the Croydon-born player can bring.
“He’s a player with very specific qualities to play in those pockets in that position as an attacking midfielder. I am excited to work with him. I have been talking with him and I have followed him during his spell on loan. I think he’s someone who can be pretty impressive. I’m pleased by what I’ve seen from him.”
Until late November though, Smith Rowe had to wait for any first team action this season. Sidelined early on in the season with a shoulder injury, it was only in the latter games of Arsenal’s cruising Europa League campaign did he begin to show why he was kept at the club.
After bagging two assists and a goal in just 129 minutes of Europa League play, and with Arsenal’s woeful Premier League form dragging into Christmas, Arteta gave the youngster a chance to show his worth in the Boxing Day derby against Chelsea.
He didn’t disappoint.
Saka scored the third (did he or didn’t he mean it) goal in the 3-1 victory, but it was his fellow Hale End product Smith Rowe who assisted him. That was nothing though compared to the Arsenal-of-old goal the duo combined on in the 4-0 demolition of West Brom just five days later.
Linking up with Alexandre Lacazette, the two created a goal that gave Gunners fans flashbacks of prime Wengerball, with Smith Rowe again teeing up Saka for a simple tap in.
The goal was exactly the type of goal Arsenal fans had been missing, with one Arsenal player of highlighting Smith-Rowe’s new importance to the team.
Fast forward a week or so and Arteta would have hoped a home FA Cup tie against early exit specialists Newcastle was the perfect game to encourage his second-string players to step up and pose questions around selection.
Oh how they failed.
Nicolas Pepe and Willian continued to look lost, senselessly marauding around the pitch to little to no effect. The justification for their price (Pepe), wages (both) and place in the starting line-up (both again) linger heavy on Arsenal and Arteta. Now with two hungry academy youngsters leading Arsenal into a fourth straight victory, either player’s inclusion has to be met with bewilderment.
After a frustrating first half against the Magpies, Arteta then turned to his two inspiring youngsters in the 56th minute and 66th minute to come off the bench and get Arsenal safely into the fourth round. They didn’t disappoint, although it took until extra time, as good work from Saka eventually led to Smith Rowe slotting past the despairing Martin Dubravka.
That made it two goals and four assists in just 438 minutes of first-team football (just under five games) and continued the seamless transition into using a system operating with a number 10 – a role left vacant for many, many months.
His form in particular is a continued breath of fresh air and may lead many to think that links to Borussia Dortmund’s Julian Brandt and Norwich City’s Emiliano Buendía are ultimately not necessary; particulary as the club need to balance their books, evidenced by the £120m bank loan taken out over the past week.
Furthermore, Arteta clearly realises he has a bright future, confirming to Arsenal’s official website how important he now is.
“It means that we believe in him, that he’s playing really well, that he’s growing and becoming more and more important in the team. Today he showed that today with the way he came on, the personality he plays with. We asked him to get into the box more and be more of a threat, and today he scored a really important goal for us.”
One thing’s for sure, Smith Rowe deserves the praise coming his way – let’s hope for Arsenal’s sake, and Arteta’s, that he’s allowed to show this form is no flash in the pan.