Emile Smith Rowe draws similarities to Aaron Ramsey and will do well to learn from his career at Arsenal
In another tepid European affair at The Emirates, it was Smith Rowe who stood out as a rare streak of light
Never have there been such curdling games under Unai Emery as Arsenal’s Europa League victories at the Emirates this season. Even when scoring four against Vorskla Poltava in September the match never raised to room temperature. So if there’s any criticism easily honed on his new look side, it is these tepid Thursday night affairs where Arsenal stoop to their opponent’s level.
It causes the touchline puppeteer to gesticulate furiously from the touchline with turbine-like bluster, surely capable of powering the small dungeon where the Spaniard scrutinises footage the following day. But if there is one allied streak of light from these evenings which consistently ebb into that basement lair, it is, yet again, Emile Smith Rowe.
Not once in Emery’s tenure has the ringmaster given free reign to any of his players - as Mesut Ozil was so startled to find out. So perhaps the greatest and most noteworthy surprise of this bobbing dullard was that the manager's waving - as though the last bus were about to soar straight by - did not apply to his side's most youthful player.
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In the reverse of this fixture a fortnight ago, Smith Rowe was syphoned into the rigorous wing position which has served the evolutionary blossom of Alex Iwobi so well. Aaron Ramsey, still embroiled in the wake of his contract withdrawal, was given rights to the centre of the park.
Yet, in the first ten minutes tonight, the 18-year-old trotted between all manner of positions across Arsenal's front-three at comfortable will. A saunter along the halfway line paired with typical teenage swagger one minute, before bustling back 40 yards to slide tackle Sporting's right-back the next.
There was evidently the intention, even just a speculative interest, from Emery to trial Smith Rowe - up until Danny Welbeck’s injury - in a central striking role here. Not an altogether unfamiliar position for the golden Ambrosia of Arsenal's academy, but one which shows the manager is still curiously experimenting as to where the teenager's talents best lie.
The result was, in truth, relatively fruitless. The starlet stuck in the mud between Sporting's lumbering defenders with little service to leap upon. Only once Aubameyang was forced on after 26 minutes did Smith Rowe - restationed into a deeper position rotating on either flank - exhibit the deft struts of skill which belie his immaturity.
An innocuous dab to flick past Lisbon’s sprawling centre-backs, a smooth salsa of the hips to send his defensive marker down the wrong dual-carriageway. Burrowing into small pockets of space, tenaciously creating room rather than being forced to hibernate within it. The innate ability to intersperse possession and uncanny eye of seeing all from within the centre of surroundings.
It's in these roles, across the centre of the pitch, where Smith Rowe's best talents can flourish. Where he can seize the ball on a regular basis, drift from wing-to-wing and box-to-box - little jink here, little layoff there - and where senior staff at Arsenal see his future.
It was the same role envisaged for Ramsey when he joined the club and the first-team in 2018 as a fresh-faced 18-year-old. Yet, the Welshman would never quite cement a defining role, unsettled by stints on the left wing, frustrated at being trapped in the deep-end of midfield.
So it's telling that it was Smith Rowe, nine years Ramsey's junior, who was granted the licence to flourish on Thursday night. Ramsey forced to recede so the squad's most exciting prospect can prevail.
Further likeness can be found in the summer of 2015, when Barcelona approached both Ramsey and Smith Rowe. A small aperitif of praise from a senior player here, a sweet liqueur of loving admiration from the hierarchy there in regard to the then £50m Welsh captain as a subtle poach of Smith Rowe was attempted under the covers - what would have been the perfect retaliation to Arsenal's snaring of Cesc Fabregas.
It can be easy to remiss Ramsey's great career with Arsenal due to his current contract situation compared to the form which sought Catalan attention three years ago. Smith Rowe is now very much the parallel - the next in the lineage to the Welshman - as Arsenal's most promising prospect. In the embryonic stages of his career with abundant potential but an acute reminder as to how great or unfulfilled things can be.