It was exactly a year ago that the true promise of Arsenal’s youthful core became apparent. Faced with something of an injury crisis, Mikel Arteta turned to Emile Smith Rowe to start the Boxing Day 2020 match against Chelsea with Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka also included in the lineup. It was a turning point in the Gunners’ season as the youngsters shone in a 3-1 win.
365 days on and all three aforementioned players are taking the next step in their development, as demonstrated by their performance in the Boxing Day 2021 victory over Norwich City. The promise shown by Martinelli, Saka and Smith Rowe has crystallised into fully formed match-winning qualities, particularly in the case of the latter two.
Saka and Smith Rowe, who came off the bench in the second half, both found the back of the net in the 5-0 demolition of Norwich at Carrow Road with the former bagging a brace. In 1,402 minutes, the 20-year-old has registered five goals and four assists in the Premier League season. Last term, his productivity was capped at five goals and three assists in 2,560 minutes. Improvement is clear in the numbers.
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The same can be said of Smith Rowe who finished last season with two goals and four assists in 1,448 minutes of Premier League play. This season, the midfielder has eight goals and two assists from 1,186 minutes. Smith Rowe has added the one thing that was lacking from his game - a final product.
Martinelli has also stepped up his productivity in front of goal with the Brazilian netting four goals and notching two assists in 692 minutes of play in the Premier League this season. At this point, the 20-year-old looks to be Arsenal’s best option on the left side of the attack, surpassing the exiled Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the pecking order.
Whether or not this is a result of Arteta’s coaching, Arsenal are rising on the back of the upward trajectory of their most talented youngsters. 17 of Arsenal’s 32 Premier League goals this season have been scored by players aged 21 or under. If the North London side finish in the top four, it’ll largely be because of the achievements of their young core.
“Yes, I think in general - collectively and individually - we had some big performances,” Arteta said after the dominant victory at Carrow Road. “You don’t win five-nil away from home if you don’t do that, so I’m really happy with all the boys.
“The direction the team is taking, and how we are growing the understanding between players [is pleasing]. Obviously they’ve been playing now for a few months together. The unity that we show in general, and the support that we are getting in every ground from our supporters is very much linked with the way we can transmit the way we want to play. So I am really pleased with that as well.”
Arteta is entitled to be pleased about the development of his team as a whole. In defence, Gabriel Magalhaes and Ben White look to be a strong partnership with Thomas Partey and Granit Xhaka complementing each other in the centre of the pitch. In attack, Martin Odegaard and Smith Rowe are also on the same wavelength.
Arsenal are still a long way from where they want to be, proven by the heavy defeats suffered at the hands of Liverpool and Manchester City this season, but if they can extrapolate out the progress made between 2020 and 2021 over the next few years, the Gunners could be a force to be reckoned with once more. Saka and Smith Rowe are at the vanguard of Arteta’s project.
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