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Contractual chaos at Arsenal: Villa's cheeky Smith Rowe bid should serve as a warning for Gunners

08:00 BST 20/06/2021
Smith Rowe Arteta Leno Arsenal 2020-21 GFX
The north Londoners have so much work to do overhauling their squad this summer that there is a very real risk of something slipping through the net

What was the point? That was the question that many Arsenal fans asked themselves when news emerged that Aston Villa had made an audacious bid for Emile Smith Rowe on Wednesday.

There are few players who would be deemed unsellable at Arsenal right now. In fact, offers would be welcomed for the majority of Mikel Arteta’s squad, such is the need for a shake-up in north London.

But one of the few who would fall into the unsellable category is Smith Rowe. Along with Bukayo Saka, the 20-year-old is one of the crown jewels at Emirates Stadium. Between them, the pair almost single handedly dragged Arteta’s side away from a relegation battle during the second half of last season.

Smith Rowe’s introduction to the starting XI against Chelsea on Boxing Day sparked a dramatic upturn in form from the Gunners, with only Manchester City and Manchester United picking up more points than them from that point of the season onwards.

The Hale End academy product scored seven times and contributed seven assists in 37 appearances in all competitions last season. He is one of the few reasons supporters have to be optimistic about the future.

So the £25 million ($35m) offer from Aston Villa – a club that finished below Arsenal last season and were playing Championship football two seasons ago – left fans scratching their heads. 

It was a bid that was doomed to failure, as Arsenal told Villa when it was rejected out of hand. But the situation is one that should serve as a warning to the Gunners. 

The fact that Villa felt embolden enough to test the waters for Smith Rowe highlights the difficulties facing Arsenal this summer.

Smith Rowe’s contract situation is something that could – and should – have been sorted by now. 

“We are going to have that discussion," Arteta said in May, when asked about the likelihood of Smith Rowe being rewarded with a new contract.

"I think Emile has earned the right to look at that situation because of the performances that he has produced. He's very much engaged and wants to continue with us, that's for sure."

However, despite talks having taken place, nothing has been signed and that gave Villa the confidence to try their luck for a player who has been with the Gunners since he was 10.

There is so much going on at Arsenal at present that technical director Edu and head of football operations Richard Garlick are having to spin plates.

Ensuring Smith Rowe’s contract was signed should have been a priority, but the sheer volume of work being done behind the scenes in north London right now has meant that the situation has rumbled on longer than expected.

Sources at Arsenal are adamant that negotiations are on track and they remain convinced that a long-term extension will soon be confirmed, but until that happens, there will be some nervousness around the club.

Smith Rowe does still have two years left on his current deal, but the last thing Arsenal want is a repeat of what happened with Bukayo Saka, who was allowed to enter the final year of his contract before eventually re-signing.

The concern Arsenal face during a summer which Arteta has previously described as unprecedented, is something slipping through the net. And when that happens in football, the vultures will soon start to circle.

The goalkeeper situation at Arsenal is another which shines a light on the workload facing Edu and Garlick, who has come in from the Football Association (FA) and now looks after the legal side of things such as contracts and administration.

Bernd Leno’s long-term future is far from clear. The German has two years remaining on his contract and there have been no talks over an extension.

“It's not the time to speak about the future,” Leno said in April. “I know that I still have two years left on my contract and I'm also 29. For a goalkeeper, that's not too old. I've still got some years to go.

“I’m very happy at the club. I don't know what will come in the future, but I'm open to everything. Maybe for a new adventure or to stay at Arsenal. At the moment there are no conversations with the club or anything else.”

Sources at Arsenal suggest the club would be willing to let the 29-year-old leave this summer, but Leno is currently away with Germany at Euro 2020 and his focus is purely on his national team.

And that complicates things for Arsenal, who are looking at Ajax goalkeeper Andre Onana and Sheffield United’s Aaron Ramsdale as potential replacements.

With the start of pre-season less than a month away, the Gunners want to know who their first-choice keeper is going to be but that is far from clear right now.

It’s a tricky situation, especially when you factor in that the club are also currently without a second-choice as well, with Mat Ryan having returned to Brighton after his loan spell, and Alex Runarsson viewed as being below the required standard.

Arsenal would like to bring Ryan back on a permanent basis, but he has offers from elsewhere to mull over, so they might have to look elsewhere.

And there is even work to do to keep hold of Arthur Okonkwo, the 19-year-old keeper, who has been knocking on the door of the first team. 

Okonkwo is out of contract this summer and although sources close to the player say negotiations are heading in the right direction, he has yet to put pen to paper.

So, as it stands, Arsenal have major doubts over their No.1, have no back-up option and the youngster who is arguably third in the pecking order is out of contract.

That situation alone would be enough to keep Edu and Garlick occupied this summer and that’s before you factor in the massive squad rebuild that is being planned.

There are at least positive signs that Kieran Tierney, like Smith Rowe, will eventually extend his stay in north London, with talks progressing well.

Getting Tierney tied down would at least be a start, but it would barely put a dent in the club's huge to-do list.

Balancing that work load is going to be key for Arsenal over the coming weeks as they attempt to get themselves in a position to have a strong 2021-22 campaign. 

Villa’s cheeky move for Smith Rowe showed the Gunners what can happen if they rest on their laurels, especially when it comes to their top talent.

It’s a warning they must heed to ensure that nobody is forgotten amid the contractual chaos currently engulfing the Emirates.