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How a sliding doors game against Chelsea set Emile Smith Rowe on the path to England duty

Emile Smith Rowe
(Image credit: PA)

A swift rise was accelerated this week. First Emile Smith Rowe joined a select group by scoring in a third consecutive Premier League game. Only Nicolas Anelka, Jose Antonio Reyes and Cesc Fabregas had previously done that for Arsenal before they turned 22 and if Smith Rowe’s youth meant he was initially set for age-group football in the international break, he was soon promoted to the England squad when Marcus Rashford and James Ward-Prowse pulled out.

In under a year, Smith Rowe has, along with the still younger Bukayo Saka, become the face of Mikel Arteta’s new Arsenal and a cause for optimism. He has reconnected supporters to the club, been the runner who has transformed himself into a scorer and may now follow Saka in becoming an England international.

And yet it is tempting to wonder how much of it is by accident and how much by design. His potential has long been recognised. He debuted and scored for Arsenal at 18. He was borrowed by RB Leipzig and then Huddersfield, two clubs who tend to be astute judges of young talent. He has been in the England set-up at Under-16, Under-17, Under-18, Under-19 and Under-20 levels long before his Under-21 bow this year.

But rewind 12 months and Smith Rowe was Reiss Nelson. He was Joe Willock. He was Eddie Nketiah. He was the academy product on the periphery, perhaps destined for a bit-part role, perhaps for a series of loans and then a sale. In a sense, he wasn’t even Nelson, Willock or Nketiah. They had all played in the Premier League last season before Christmas: he had not.

Then came a match which is shaping up as career-changing. A possible England debut against Albania or San Marino will probably be described as the biggest game of his life. Incorrectly, arguably, because on Boxing Day Smith Rowe was parachuted into an Arsenal team languishing in 15th for a London derby. He, Saka and Gabriel Martinelli powered Arsenal. He nutmegged N’Golo Kante and provided too much vibrancy and dynamism for Chelsea. They were overwhelmed and overcome. In little over an hour, he went from fringe figure to talisman. 

Arteta felt revitalised in the process. But while he can be a meticulous micro-manager, he stumbled on a solution. Smith Rowe’s success came in spite of his strategy. He had played in the last game before the Spaniard took charge, and was one of the few to emerge with credit from a dismal stalemate at Everton under Freddie Ljungberg, but it was his final Premier League start for a year. Arteta began by trying to build around Mesut Ozil. He retained an interest in Smith Rowe, analysing his game over video sessions when in lockdown and when the youngster was at Huddersfield, but then he made what seemed his flagship signing: Willian. 

The Brazilian blocked Smith Rowe’s path. Had Willian proved a remotely decent signing, had he seen out his three-year contract in the team, Smith Rowe might still be on the margins. Instead, Willian was dismal; the only thing he did quickly was decline. Instead, Smith Rowe has been the force the veteran was supposed to be, the workhorse with the ball-carrying ability to take the ball into the final third, the versatile flair player who could operate on the flanks or as a No. 10, the hub and heartbeat of the team. Willian had been wretched in the previous three months; after Smith Rowe’s catalytic introduction, he only started four more Premier League games.

This was not the masterplan. Instead, it was a reminder that sometimes luck plays its part, that things fall into place, that chance and circumstances can still shape events. To watch Smith Rowe, to see how good he invariably is, brings the temptation to argue it was inevitable that, even if it was delayed, that his breakthrough would have come. But perhaps it wouldn’t. Perhaps those talents would have been camouflaged if he had not played against Chelsea or taken his opportunity. For both Smith Rowe and Arteta, the Boxing Day derby may have been a sliding-doors moment. It led the youngster on a path that extended to the England squad.

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