Arsenal celebrate during their win over Chelsea
Smith Rowe, who had played just 97 minutes of league football for The Gunners before this 65-minute appearance in only his second league start, was progressive in everything he did. Of his 22 completed passes, 18 were in the opposition passes and, combined with a cross, was judged as having 22 “good” moments of both by Opta. Whether or not your interpretation of “good” tallies with theirs, the eyes will have noticed a kid unperturbed at being thrown into a scenario he has no experience of but trusting his appreciation of the game’s fundamentals of going towards goal.
This was just as pronounced in Martinelli’s work, whose goal threat is ever present with his directness. Don’t let his “Brazilian-ness” fool you: there aren’t many 19-year-old strikers who put their bodies on the line more than him. His directness allowed Arsenal to stretch play, coupled with a physicality that saw him win as many tackles (three) as N’Golo Kante, while being the host’s furthest player forward.
It is perhaps Arteta’s fourth most-used outfield player who best encapsulates the value and valour of youth. Not just because Saka knows not of title-chasing days, Champions League football, or to be spoiled by highs to have short shrift for the lows. But because he has become a totem at the club. Of how, beyond stalwarts of testimonial year vintage, those most ingrained at a club are its youth.
There’s is an affection that runs deep and wide, into their families who become as one with clubs as they do. Saka joined Arsenal when he was just seven, and it was his father, a Newcastle fan, who would take him to training at Hale End throughout his formative days. He would regularly walk past a picture of Jack Wilshere and dream of one day becoming the next product on the conveyor belt to make it to first-team honours.
It was also here he realised few reach the end of this line. Age-group football gives players an understanding of how fickle the real world is long before the rest of us. The majority who might have been strs of their year groups remain just that. Some stagnate and move on to other destinations. Others stop entirely.
That cut-throat nature is hammered into them early, even if many cast it from their minds. As Saka wrote on the Arsenal website in July: “The coaches would always say, ‘Look around the dressing room, only maybe one or possibly two of you will make it to the first team one day.’ We would look at each other and wonder who it would be.”
Well, it would turn out to be him. Along with Smith Rowe and those on the bench against Chelsea such as Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Joe Willock, Eddie Nketiah and Reiss Nelson who came through the same system. Like other successful graduates, they carry a sense of duty to take the club forward. That sense of responsibility, as countless examples have shown, is something money cannot buy.
This result has given Arteta reason put more of his faith in youth in the immediate weeks ahead. It’s not for nothing that the knock-on effect for this match at least was to coax better displays out of Alexandre Lacazette, Hector Bellerin, Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny. Four players who feature high on a list of those supporters would happily carry elsewhere.
These kids will not bring back the glory days alone, just as it cannot solely be on them to lift the club out of the doldrums after just a fifth win out of 15, still just six points from the bottom three. But they will bring back a degree of hope, a smattering of fun and perhaps even a whiff of that old-school Va Va Voom. A reminder of what it is to be Arsenal.
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