What a rise it has been for Emile Smith Rowe. In the space of a year, the Arsenal playmaker has gone from someone who may not have had a future at the club into one of the very first names on manager Mikel Arteta’s team sheet following a run of remarkably consistent performances and an increasing number of goal involvements in 2021-22.
It’s perhaps easy to forget that the 21-year-old’s breakthrough came in a moment of crisis. As they prepared to face Chelsea on Boxing Day 2019, Arsenal had only taken five points from their previous 10 Premier League games and were languishing in the bottom half with Arteta’s job seemingly hanging by a thread. The Spaniard’s answer was to hand Smith Rowe his first league start, and he was truly instrumental in a convincing 3-1 victory. Since then, he’s never looked back.
The promise was always there, during appearances in cup competitions and loan spells with Red Bull Leipzig and Championship side Huddersfield Town as a teenager, but few could have imagined him becoming one of the Gunners’ most valuable assets in such a short space of time. Aston Villa made offers to sign him last summer and had no chance of success, for they underestimated how central he was to Arteta’s plans.
This season, his influence has grown and that is reflected by the numbers. A goal and a glorious assist in the North London derby against Tottenham in September capped a man of the match display, before he netted in three consecutive games two months later. Also catching the eye with his technique and range of passing, such excellent form earned him a deserved England call-up for the November internationals, scoring in his second cap. He’ll surely be key to Arsenal’s hopes for the foreseeable future.
There are high hopes again at Tottenham after the arrival of Antonio Conte, but one burning question that’ll need answering in the months to come is whether he is the man to help Dele Alli rediscover his form. At one stage the most exciting attacking midfielder in the Premier League, Alli has now been totally out of sorts for over two years in a mystifying fall from grace.
It feels like a long time ago since Alli was rightly being hailed as one of the finest young talents in Europe for his outstanding return of goals and assists, forging a particularly destructive partnership with Harry Kane. He was aggressive and dynamic, always giving opponents something to think about and using his creativity to try – and so often execute – things that other players wouldn’t.
However, even before former manager and mentor Mauricio Pochettino was sacked by Tottenham in November 2019, the signs were there that he’d lost his form. A bright start under successor Jose Mourinho soon faded and appearances became increasingly rare as the Portuguese grew frustrated at Alli’s inability to influence games and even called him out publicly on one or two occasions.
He was given another chance to impress under Nuno Espirito Santo at the beginning of this season but again failed to spark, so you wonder what is next for a player who was once so vital for club and country. He has work to do to prove himself to the exceptional Coach that is Conte, the latest man tasked with trying to conjure the best out of him.
There’s surely little doubt that the talent hasn’t left Alli, and that he’s capable of performing at the highest level once again, but it’s now down to him to adopt the right mentality and avoid his career becoming a wasted opportunity.
When things aren’t going well at Everton, the fans are never shy of making their feelings known, and they haven’t held back this time either as a promising start to the season has turned into one of immense struggle.
A significant slump in form has resulted in the atmosphere at Goodison Park becoming occasionally toxic, with anger being aimed towards the club’s owners as well as manager Rafael Benitez and his team.
The appointment of Benitez was risky given his previous association with Liverpool, but although results have been poor, he’s an easy target for criticism when in reality he inherited a tricky situation. In recognition of that, the simmering frustration in the stands spilled over during a heavy home defeat to the Spaniard’s former club in the Merseyside derby, with chants of ‘sack the board’ and the unfurling of a large banner which demanded the club to adhere to its motto, Nil Satis Nisi Optimum: Nothing but the best is good enough. Sadly for Everton, they are a million miles away from being the best.
Majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri took control back in 2016 with the aim of securing Champions League football and establishing them in the top four, but six years on and despite spending over £500m on transfers, the Toffees arguably find themselves in a worse position than before. Many of those big money signings have fallen far below expectations, and the current squad is now painfully short of strength in depth.
That fact was ruthlessly exposed by injuries to key players early in the season and having been restricted in the transfer market last summer due to Financial Fair Play, Benitez hasn’t had the chance to really stamp his mark on the club. It may take time to turn things around, but the fans’ patience is already at breaking point.
By: Stephen Donovan