Emile Smith Rowe return could mark changing of the guard for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Arsenal
Questions have been asked of the Gabonese forward this season and with Smith Rowe returning after injury Mikel Arteta faces a difficult decision on who should play on the left side against Slavia Prague in Thursday's Europa League quarter final leg. Who Arteta picks could reveal a lot about the Spaniard's internal thought process.
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While Arsenal have suffered more damaging defeats to poorer teams this season, Saturday’s home loss to Liverpool revealed a lot about Mikel Arteta’s side. The Gunners were lifeless throughout with the limp performance of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang particularly notable for just how unnoteworthy it was.
Considered one of the best forwards in the Premier League, and Arsenal’s main man, not so long ago, Aubameyang’s dramatic downturn in form was reflected by a performance that saw the 31-year-old fail to produce a single shot, on or off target. He touched the ball just once more (38) than goalkeeper Bernd Leno.
All sorts of questions have been asked of Aubameyang this season with some pundits concerned Arsenal have ended up with another Mesut Ozil on their hands after signing the Gabonese forward to a £250,000-a-week contract only last summer, but the discourse has sharpened since Saturday.
So underwhelming has Auabmeyang’s form this season been, it’s debatable whether he still warrants a place in Arteta’s strongest XI. Last month’s North London derby, for instance, saw Emile Smith Rowe start over Aubameyang on the left side with the Gunners subsequently producing one of their best performances of the season so far.
With Kieran Tierney overlapping down the left to provide width and Smith Rowe cutting inside to link up with Martin Odegaard in a central position, Arsenal looked better balanced and more comfortable in their approach that had been the case for a long time. Aubameyang, forced to watch from the bench after turning up late to the pre-match meeting, saw a team that was better off without him.
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This week could mark a significant shift in the landscape at the Emirates Stadium. Smith Rowe missed the 3-0 defeat to Liverpool through injury, but could return for Thursday’s Europa League quarter final first leg against Slavia Prague having trained with the rest of the squad on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Arteta might have to pick between Aubameyang, the highest-paid player at the club, and Smith Rowe, the player who appears to suit Arsenal’s system better, for his side’s biggest game of the season so far. If he opts for the latter, the symbolism will be undeniable. Aubameyang will be second choice.
Bukayo Saka is another who missed Saturday’s match against Liverpool. Just like Smith Rowe, though, he could make his return against Slavia Prague, boosting Arsenal’s chances of getting a positive result. The 19-year-old’s absence robbed the hosts of an outlet down the right side to both relieve pressure and pose an attacking threat.
Bukayo Saka of Arsenal during the UEFA Europa League Round of 32 match between Arsenal FC and SL Benfica at Karaiskakis Stadium
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The Gunners have averaged 2.2 points and two goals per game in the 10 league matches Saka and Smith Row have started together this season. In the 20 league games they have played without the pair, though, they have averaged just one point and 0.95 goals per game. These numbers speak for themselves.
There is too much riding on the Europa League for Arteta not to pick his best team in every match Arsenal have left in the competition this season. It is the Gunners’ only remaining route back into the Champions League with the North London club languishing in ninth place in the Premier League table. Elimination before the final would thrust the sheer desperation and failure of this season into focus and could even threaten Arteta’s position.
If Arteta has the freedom to pick between two fully-fit left-side attackers in Aubameyang and Smith Rowe for the Europa League quarter final clash against Slavia Prague this week, recent performances will surely see him opt for the latter. Arsenal’s whole season could depend on it.