Willian out, Smith Rowe in: Arteta's 2021 Arsenal blueprint must focus on youth

Premier League
Brighton & Hove Albion v Arsenal
Emile Smith Rowe
Features & Opinions
The Gunners take on Brighton on Tuesday looking to build on their impressive Boxing Day victory against Chelsea in the Premier League
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It was the blueprint for a more exciting future at Arsenal.

After months of watching the majority of Mikel Arteta’s senior players amble through games in such uninspiring fashion, the shackles finally came off against Chelsea on Boxing Day.

Arteta turned to youth and the under-fire Arsenal boss was rewarded.

The likes of Gabriel Martinelli, Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka inspired Arsenal to their first win in seven league games, with the victory able to lift the pressure off Arteta after a performance which highlighted why the kids are the way forward in north London.

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“I saw a lot of things I really liked from the start,” Arteta admitted. “The courage we had to play, the energy that we showed, how aggressive we were without the ball and the energy the team was transmitting.

“We were very direct when we were attacking. The right spaces were always occupied and there was a lot of movement. 

“It depends on the players and it depends on the opponents, but it was close to what we want, for sure.”

Arteta handed Smith Rowe his first Premier League start in over a year against Chelsea, and the 20-year-old delivered the type of performance that showed why so many fans have been calling for the playmaker to get more game time.

Playing in the No.10 role behind Alexandre Lacazette and sandwiched between Martinelli and Saka, Smith Rowe gave Arsenal something they have been lacking all season in the final third.

Finally, there was a link between the midfield and attack, there was someone willing to drive forward and get ahead of the ball and the striker.

His movement was exceptional, and that allowed Martinelli and Saka to benefit as they were able to run into the space that Smith Rowe had been able to generate by pulling the Chelsea defenders out of position.

“Emile gives us something different,” said Arteta. “He’s got different qualities to any other midfielder.”

It has been a frustrating season up to now for Smith Rowe due to injury, but he has now made five appearances in all competitions since coming off the bench in the Europa League win against Molde on November 26.

He scored the following week against Rapid Vienna, and his cameo against Manchester City in the Carabao Cup quarter-final last Tuesday showed he was ready for the Premier League.

The absence of Willian due to illness against Chelsea perhaps made Arteta’s decision to start the youngster an easier one that it could have been, but he showed why he must now be ahead of the Brazil international in the pecking order.

Willian has been a massive let down since his move from Chelsea in the summer. Brought in on big money as someone who could hit the ground running given his glittering seven-year stay in west London, he has failed to deliver and let Arteta down.

The 32-year-old’s lazy first-half performance during the defeat at Everton before Christmas was an insult, and offered the perfect example of why Arsenal have been struggling so much this season.

Going forward they have been sluggish, devoid of creativity, pace and imagination. Arteta’s side have been easy to play against, with opposition teams well aware of the lack of threat they offer in the final third.

But against Chelsea the youthful energy shone through. With Willian nowhere to be seen and club record signing Nicolas Pepe left on the bench, Smith Rowe, Martinelli and Saka worked tirelessly with Lacazette, and inspired the Gunners to their best league performance of the season.

“It was a really good mixture of senior players, experienced players and the young talent that we have,” Arteta said after the game.

“The young players have been showing us in the last few weeks that they are capable of starting the games and I had no doubt they would respond. They were really, really good.

“It’s not that we had to play them, because we had enough senior players on the bench that could play. We decided to play them because they fully deserved it. 

“I think it’s a message within the squad that everyone is important here and everybody can contribute and everybody is useful. It doesn’t matter if you’re a young lad or a senior player, everyone is here to contribute.”

Arsenal now visit Brighton on Tuesday before travelling to The Hawthorns on January 2 to take on West Brom.

Both are teams currently below the Gunners in the Premier League, and Arteta is well aware that the table would look very different should his side take six points from the next two games.

Arsenal’s manager will be left with a big decision when Willian returns from his illness, with the former Chelsea star having started all but one of the league games he has been available for this season.

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But Smith Rowe and Martinelli have shown why they now need to join Saka as regulars in Arteta’s side. The transformation against Chelsea was stark and that needs to be built upon, not held back.

There have been some dark times at Arsenal in recent months, but the blueprint for a better and more exciting 2021 was clear for all to see on Boxing Day.

Martinelli, Smith Rowe and Saka are the future, and with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Thomas Partey to return to full fitness soon, there promises to be better times ahead.