Why Arsenal’s Mikel Arteta is facing a dilemma after Emile Smith Rowe leads impressive young guns in Europe

How much can Arsenal realistically glean from Europa League games? When they play against an Irish side who have suffered a bruising league campaign, are at risk of losing more than a dozen players in the coming days and are lead by a head coach who lacks the requisite UEFA badges to take his place in the dugout do these fixtures become glorified training exercises, particularly when neither team has anything left to play for in the group stages?

It is a challenging question for Mikel Arteta, who has seen his Europa League sides show so much of what Arsenal are lacking in the Premier League. On Thursday nights these youthful teams crackle with creativity, move the ball with pace and score goals at will. But of course they do. Dundalk, Rapid Vienna and Molde could not call on a $95million forward in Nicolas Pepe or World Cup winner Shkodran Mustafi, two of eight senior internationals to take the pitch in the 4-2 win in Dublin.

The fundamental reality of football in 2020 is that even mid-ranking Premier League sides such as Aston Villa and Leeds United offer a far sterner test than the best that the Norwegian, Irish and Austrian leagues have to offer. It ought to be expected that Arsenal would steamroll these international opponents in a way they can’t against domestic opposition.

Still the gulf between their European successes and English struggles is palpable. In six Europa League games Arsenal have scored 20 goals and created a string of excellent chances, their expected goals (xG) tally hitting 14.24.

Both are significantly higher than the same total figure for 11 Premier League matches where Arsenal have scored 10 goals and registered an xG of 12.67. In domestic fixtures Arteta’s attack has run aground against low blocks with recent games seeing his team resorting to a string of low percentage crosses to a penalty area often occupied solely by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Against Tottenham they attempted 44 without seriously testing their opponents in a 2-0 defeat.

Compare and contrast that to their 4-2 win over Dundalk. It cannot be stated often enough how great the gulf in class is between the Premier League leaders and the Irish Cup winners but there were still signs of a style of play that better suited the Arsenal squad. They probed more central areas, looking for quick interplay and a through ball to unleash Eddie Nketiah and Folarin Balogun. From 28 fewer crosses the Gunners scored four more goals.

Arteta did not seem willing to debate Arsenal’s more infrequent deliveries from wide. After noting that Thursday’s win showcased a style of play more akin to what he wants from this team he refused to expand further.

He might have been entitled to note it is not all that easy to simply replicate what works in Europe. He has tried: Joe Willock earned a run of Premier League starts after performing well in midweek, Alexandre Lacazette’s foray as a No.10 against Molde and Rapid Vienna was reprised with mixed success against Tottenham.

Both occupied the attacking midfield position that seems destined to define Arsenal’s season. The long-term incumbent, Mesut Ozil, has been left out of a squad that has no senior players as capable of crafting chances against disciplined defenses.

The win in Ireland at least offered a flash of one player who might eventually be ready to take on the creative mantle: Emile Smith Rowe. Since breaking into the first team setup in the summer of 2018 the 20-year-old’s progress has been hampered by injuries and the pressure on both Unai Emery and then Mikel Arteta to earn immediate results.

Arteta is a great admirer of Smith Rowe’s talents but had chosen not to deploy them from the outset in any game before the visit to Dundalk. A natural in more central areas, the youngster looked in command of the game from his left hand berth and led his side in chance creation whilst also teeing up Mohamed Elneny for a long-range goal.

Particularly notable in a team whose attacks move at a glacial pace, Smith Rowe consistently eschewed the backward pass and ensured that when he had possession in the final third Arsenal’s attacks kept moving. All bar one of the 21 passes he attempted when near the goal found his man.

For a player who, as his manager noted, was playing out of position with few first team minutes in his legs, this was an impressive display.

“You can see that every time he is around the ball something is going to happen,” Arteta told CBS Sports. “He has a lot of creativity, he’s a player who has the quality to receive the ball and do things in areas where there are high-value spaces after it gets opened. 

“He’s a threat and I’m really happy with his performance.”

The question is what that good performance translates into. Asked whether Smith Rowe had a chance of featuring against Burnley on Sunday Arteta said: “There’s a chance for everybody.” It is more likely than not that he will find himself not required when the high stakes matches resume even if the skillset his manager laid out above might be just what Arsenal need against a rugged defense who would like nothing more than to face crosses by the dozen.

Yet how can Arteta know whether Smith Rowe, Balogun or any of the other prospects who impressed off the bench are ready for Premier League action? Such is the gulf between European opposition pre-Christmas and even the stragglers of the English top flight that it would take an extraordinary leap of faith to trust that Thursday’s bright young things could provide a repeat performance 72 hours later.

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