According to former Arsenal left-back Gael Clichy, the top four-chasing Gunners have been ‘carried’ by Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe this season, a claim that is partly bolstered by statistics.
Between them, at the time of writing, with just a handful of games remaining in 2021/22, the devastating duo have been directly involved in 54% of their team’s league goals. Only Mo Salah, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Diogo Jota have scored more pure match-winners than Saka since last August, and staying with the England winger, his actions have hardly been reserved for the Burnleys of this world either, scoring or assisting against every top six side, bar Liverpool.
More so, by both reaching double figures in the Premier League this term for goals they are the first English pair under the age of 21 to do this, well, ever.
And it is then, on acknowledging that last curio that something rather profound is remembered, something that is too often forgotten or overlooked on seeing Smith Rowe’s clever and impactful movement between the lines and Saka breezily skating past opponents. Each player was born well into this century and were still in nappies when Arsenal last won a title, courtesy of their inimitable Invincibles. Their performances therefore may be mature, and imbued with a steady influence that suggests they are at the very peak of their powers. But they are still mere kids.
Which means Arsenal’s high dependence on the two superstars-to-be is not a trait the club should be overly proud of, damning as it is on a lack of leadership that has long held the North London giants back. In an ideal set-up – and this is especially true of the elite, who have the finances to make it a reality – there are two or three established, seasoned professionals leading the way, while any young potential follows suit. They learn the right habits. They look up to the household names. They are mentored into improvement.
Yet here, the opposite applies, because how often have we witnessed this term Granit Xhaka or Alexandre Lacazette toil without reward, leading to tempers being frayed and shoulders to be shrugged, only for Smith Rowe to drop deep and retrieve possession, then run right at the heart of the opposition rearguard, with Saka haring to catch up; and all the while Martin Odegaard – himself just 23 – is available for a lay-off, which he receives and artfully sets up a 20-year-old so flipping good he has already been deployed in seven different positions. A goal is scored and suddenly all is right at the Emirates once again with ‘Project Arteta’ deemed a success.
As stated, it is not exactly ideal for kids to be setting the standard but perhaps, as incongruous as the situation is, a caveat is pertinent here, in that it rather depends on just how special these kids are.
And they really are special. Having come through the ranks, joining Arsenal aged eight and later rebuffing the advances of Tottenham because he was a Gooner, Smith Rowe first came to prominence by repeatedly impressing in Europa League outings, before being entrusted to take on the number 10 role full-time, replacing Willian who many supporters would insist was a low bar to hurdle.
Saka and Smith Rowe are Arsenal’s top goalscorers this season with a combination of 31 g/a. Two big talents. pic.twitter.com/NjoN9i1Vr6
— Rนttø (@ezrandez) April 27, 2022
Immediately it was apparent that here was a youngster blessed with an intuitive knack to find space and an ever-reliable touch. Throw in vision that can’t be taught and Arsenal clearly had a player.
Few beyond the club’s confines however could have possibly predicted the quantum leap in development that has occurred since. The Croydon-born schemer has only recently bypassed fifty appearances for his side and already he regularly runs the show, dictating the tempo; immersed in all that is good about Arsenal’s build-up play and attacking virtues.
Though Saka is a year younger than his team-mate his break-through came earlier, possibly due to an unerring versatility that remarkably had him positioned at left wing-back for his first four England caps despite now being considered one of the country’s most dynamic right-sided forwards.
What impresses most about this phenomenal young talent is his dribbling, that is never less than considered, serving a purpose at all times. Because how routinely have we seen before a teenage baller, full of flicks and tricks and furnished with blistering pace, supposedly set the Premier League alight via a series of eye-catching runs. Yet too often they lead down blind alleys. Too often it amounts to smoke and mirrors.
Saka certainly has the chops to send his opposite number for a hot dog – not for nothing does Gareth Southgate refer to him as a ‘slippery eel’ while Pierre Emerick Aubameyang has previously nicknamed him petit piment, or ‘little chilli’ – but there are no designs to show off. Beating an opponent is exclusively to open things up, to gain an advantage.
Indeed, studying the considerable merits of both players what we always come back to is their intelligence; that and a rare ability to extract the best of their rare ability.
All of which bodes extremely well for Arsenal of course, but also for England as a World Cup approaches and within the Three Lions’ ranks are a pair who understand each other’s game from having come through the Gunners’ academy together.
Indeed, together they are a blueprint for Arsenal’s here and now and future. Excitingly, the same goes for their nation.