Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe are Arsenal's best prospects since Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie
Arsenal have a fine reputation for nurturing young talents but only Jack Wilshere and Ashley Cole have come through their academy to become first-team stars in the last 30 years. Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka have the opportunity to buck that trend and are the best pair of youngsters they have had since Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie were imported from Barcelona and Feyenoord respectively.
Emile Smith Rowe celebrates scoring the 1st Arsenal goal with (R) Bukayo Saka during the FA Cup Third Round match between Arsenal and Newcastle United at Emirates Stadium on January 09, 2021 in London, England.
Arsenal's season feels a bit like Groundhog Day. In 2019-20, they made a promising start followed by a dramatic autumn decline, arrested by the emergence of a youngster whose fearless approach lifted his side out of the doldrums. Last year, it was Bukayo Saka who prompted a reversal in fortunes after the sharp decline under Unai Emery. This year, Mikel Arteta kept his job but another Hale End graduate has risen to the fore once more: Emile Smith Rowe.
It has often been a cliché to laud Arsenal's commitment to youth. The likes of Nicolas Anelka, Cesc Fabregas, Gael Clichy, Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey and Hector Bellerin all broke into the first team as teenagers and enjoyed a great deal of prolonged success in north London. Robin van Persie, Thierry Henry, Samir Nasri and countless others were established stars in their early 20s who were given a chance by Arsene Wenger.
But all of those players were imported. Arsenal was a mere finishing school, a place they could come to having learned their football in other academies, and be confident in being given the chance to further themselves and either win trophies in Islington, or move elsewhere in search of silverware.
Throughout Wenger's 22-year reign, only two players came through Hale End and truly established themselves as stars: Ashley Cole, for a period the world's best left-back, and Jack Wilshere, whose promise in midfield was never truly realised as he buckled under the weight of repeated injuries. Kieran Gibbs and Alex Iwobi threatened greatness but never delivered on it. It was hardly a return on the investment that Arsenal had put in their academy.
But Saka and Smith Rowe form part of a cohort of players who all grew up together and are making a splash in the first team. Eddie Nketiah has been on the fringes of the XI for a year and has a knack of scoring some vital goals, Joe Willock has shown plenty of promise in his chances in the Europa League and Carabao Cup, and Reiss Nelson has bags of talent, as his loan spell at Hoffenheim showed. Ainsley Maitland-Niles' versatility has long been a considerable asset. Along with Kieran Tierney, signed from Celtic in 2019, Arsenal finally have a British core.
But it is Smith Rowe and Saka who have provided many of the reasons for Arsenal fans to be optimistic for the future. Saka has been, without question, Arsenal's best player this season. For a while, it looked as though he was the only one trying. For a long time the main source of creativity, his game has been aided unendingly by the emergence of Smith Rowe.
Since the 3-1 win over Chelsea, which has sparked an unbeaten run of six games in all competitions, Saka has scored three goals, having previously netted just once all season. All three of those strikes have been assisted by Smith Rowe.
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“Obviously we all played together from a young age, going through the academy all playing together and now to be playing in the first team is a different feeling," he said after Monday's 3-0 win over Newcastle.
“When we all step on the pitch together there’s no better feeling. To share it with the players that you’ve grown up with is unbelievable. I feel like we’ve got that little extra link-up, we know each other and I feel like that definitely shows on the pitch.”
The mutual goodwill amongst this cohort of Hale End graduates is obvious. Smith Rowe inched his way into the first team after suffering a dislocated shoulder in pre-season. When he netted his first goal of the season against Rapid Vienna in the Europa League in December, he was set up by a visibly-delighted Maitland-Niles, who hugged his younger team-mate and was heard saying "Welcome back, bro!" by pitchside microphones.
Saka was rewarded with a new £40,000-a-week contract last summer and, according to reports, Smith Rowe will follow suit and will soon be offered a similar deal. Before too long, they will be worth far more than that.
It is a chemistry that is hard to replicate through huge signings. Arsenal suffered greatly from a lack of creativity earlier in the season prior to Smith Rowe's emergence, with Mesut Ozil frozen out. But signing a big-name playmaker is no guarantee of success, as Kai Havertz's struggles at Chelsea have shown.
And the presence of a group of academy graduates is reminiscent of an era before Wenger even came to the club. George Graham largely put his faith in youngsters. Tony Adams, already a first-choice player, was made captain and he was joined by Michael Thomas, David Rocastle, Paul Davis, Kevin Campbell, Paul Merson and later Ray Parlour in the XI. That team, give or take some additions, won two league titles, an FA Cup, two League Cups and the Cup Winners' Cup. All of them, with the exception of the elder statesman Davis and the youngster Parlour were born within three-and-a-half years of each other.
They played for one another and, with Arsenal confined to only occasional cup runs for almost two decades previously, re-established themselves at the top of English football. Had Rocastle's form not fallen away after a serious knee injury, then he would surely have formed a fine understanding with Ian Wright, who grew up on the same south London housing estate as him. It is a true pity that they only played one season together, when Rocastle's powers were significantly diminished.
Bringing through youngsters requires patience. And while Smith Rowe and Saka's rise has been seamless so far, they will undoubtedly face challenges in the months and years ahead. But the potential pay off is huge. With the club seemingly short of money due to their prolonged absence from the Champions League, nurturing a new generation of kids from all over London could be their path back to success again.