I shall resist the urge to make jokes about Willian getting his first Arsenal goal at a point in the season where it does not matter one tiny, insignificant, flying fluck.
In a comfortable win over already-doomed West Brom (a win which saw Fat Sam relegated for the first time in his career) it was the quality of some of our young players that stood out, not for the first time this season.
Saka, thrust back into the left back role, terrorised the right side of the Baggie’s defence; Martinelli tried hard without finding space to make a huge impact and Emile Smith Rowe pulled the strings.
I have felt for some time that ESR has the highest potential ceiling out of a crop of very high-flying youngsters who do great credit to the Hale End academy that has shaped them.
This is Smith Rowe’s first half-season of regular football and, at just 20, he already displays such a wonderful array of talents that I am convinced he will end up being the most valuable out of all that group of young stars.
His first touch is sublime, easily the best in the current Arsenal squad and on a level with that of Santi Cazorla and Pires. It’s not just that he can bring the ball under control so elegantly and comfortably, it’s that he does so with attacking intent, controlling it in such a way that the very act of control pivots him away from a defender or into space, or allows him to ‘turn the corner’ for a give-and-go. I could watch it all day.
Then there’s his passing, which is invariably forward-minded, incisive and intelligent. He knows where to be on the pitch and where to put the ball for his team mates.
He is fast, tireless and getting stronger as the season progresses.
The one thing that can take a while to develop with talented young attacking midfielders is the goalscoring touch and, in that regard, ESR is no exception: yesterday was his first league goal in an Arsenal shirt. But the power and technique with which he hammered home that volleyed goal against West Brom suggests there is a lot more to come.
Next season (if he doesn’t have the all-too-common ‘second season dip’ experienced by a lot of young breakthrough players) I think we can expect ESR to pitch in with 10 to 15 goals for us.
I know some will say that Saka or Martinelli are better prospects and they might be right. But I see Saka as an outstanding example of a type of player we know well – a fast, skilful, intelligent wide attacker who can make and score goals: a Marwood, a Limpar or a Ljungberg. He can and should be a massive asset moving forward.
Martinelli also has a high ceiling, even though he has struggled with form and injuries this season. I base my high hopes for the Brazilian on the fearless and direct approach he showed in our last campaign, as well as his hunger to get on the scoresheet. However, it seems it’s taking a while for his first touch to return and he really needs to nail that skill to progress at the top level. Nevertheless, you could see him – if he develops properly – in the mould of a Cristiano Ronaldo.
But Smith Rowe can be the player who brings the magic: the wizard who does things no-one expects, who cuts open defences with impossible passes and has eyes in the back of his head. He can be a De Bruyne, a Le Tissier, a Merson, a Brady.
After that hymn of praise for the young man I don’t want to spend too much time on yesterday’s performance. We looked in control for most of the game apart from a 15 minute spell after the Baggies pulled a goal back. It can’t have been easy for the lads to fire themselves up after the disappointment of last Thursday so they should be commended for the way they went about their business.
Leno – 7
No mistakes, some good saves and commanded his box well. The best outing from Leno for some time.
Chambers – 7
I’m really enjoying this run of form from CC, even though I still don’t see him as a RB. I would like to see him given a run at CB or DM. He’s a decent footballer and should be part of our plans moving forward.
Holding – 6.5
Gabriel – 6.5
Solid and looked comfortable on the ball (which is not always the case).
Ceballos – 6.5
Dani is a limited player and very one-footed, but he did some good work here, particularly in the first half.
Elneny – 6.5
Goes about his work unfussily and seriously. I know he’s not a fan favourite but he’s a decent squad player.
Willian – 6
Finally got a goal when (in both season terms and game terms) it didn’t really matter. Did nothing to suggest he should be in N5 next season. Let’s hope someone in the MLS is prepared to take him.
Pepe – 7
Decent performance and a cracking goal. Without the price tag, Pepe would look like a reasonable attacking option worth keeping next season.
Saka – 7.5
Excellent, dynamic performance. Got to the byline and cut the ball back numerous times, including for ESR’s goal. A huge talent.
Smith Rowe – 8 (MoTM)
I think I’ve said enough in the paragraphs above…
Martinelli – 5
Gabi just could not get into the game. I don’t know whether it was just the shape the game took or whether he needs to work on his positioning and runs. Any ideas?
Lacazette – 6.5
Made a difference in the later stages, winning the ball in midfield several times and trying to make stuff happen.
Tierney – 6
Got some more miles in the tank as he makes his way back from injury.
Partey – 6
Looked fine and managed not to give the ball away in dangerous areas as he did way too often against Villareal.