Given that the last 499 days have seen him slip from a cornerstone of Arsenal's future to a fringe option unable to get a start for his boyhood club, you could hardly blame Emile Smith Rowe if he found himself wracked with doubts. If anything, it is quite the opposite as the young playmaker returns to Mikel Arteta's side free from doubts, with nothing left to lose.
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The early weeks of last season saw Smith Rowe undergo surgery on a groin injury that had plagued him for several years, one that caused such profound challenges for the youngster that on occasion the simple act of kicking a ball proved painful. On his return following the World Cup, many expected Arteta to harness a Hale End graduate who had delivered 11 goals in the 2021-22 season, winning his first caps for England and earning the adoration of Arsenal supporters.
Instead, Smith Rowe could not break through. With a Premier League title on the line, the stakes were simply too high to ease anyone back in. By the end of the season, it felt eminently plausible that Smith Rowe might leave but Arteta insisted he would not be letting him go. Even then minutes have been hard to come by but Wednesday night brought with it a first start since May 2022, a win and a performance of promise. A player who has previously acknowledged his own shyness and nerves now feels fearless.
"Do I have doubts? Not so much anymore. I've got to change my mentality just to go for it. I've got nothing to lose. I'm trying to change inside me. I used to have a lot of doubts, used to question my confidence at times. Now I'm strong, feeling really fit," he said.
"The gaffer has really helped me with that [confidence]. He was helping me through my injury and pulled me for chats about how I can be mentally stronger.
"I really believe in myself now. I have all the right people around me, my family and friends, everyone at the club always willing to help every day on and off the pitch. I've got to keep going, keep believing and I'm sure the chances will come."
Smith Rowe can certainly proceed safe in the knowledge that he has the backing of the Arsenal fanbase. The most jubilant moment of last week's return to the Champions League might not have been any of the four goals but instead, the moment that the No. 10 was raised on the substitute's board and the Emirates Stadium launched into its cries of "Saka and Emile Smith Rowe."
"Last week when I heard that in the Champions League, [it] was a really proud moment for me and my family," he said. "It's been hard sometimes not coming on, sometimes I've felt disappointed. But this is life, this is football, you've got to keep going."
From there came a first start, not necessarily the best performance Smith Rowe has ever delivered in an Arsenal shirt but one that served as a reminder of the qualities he offers Arteta that few others do. Even in a position where the likes of Martin Odegaard and Kai Havertz are vying for minutes, no one among the advanced midfielders shows quite the same commitment to drive into the box and stretch defenders.
Smith Rowe might have marked his return with a goal but was foiled by Mark Flekken's right boot after dancing past two defenders. Establishing himself as a regular starter will be quite a challenge given the options Arteta has in central areas and on the left flank but it seems to be one that the 23-year-old is embracing.
"I've got to stay patient, keep working hard in training. There's a lot of stuff I've been trying to work on in training, my positioning and stuff like that. [Arteta] has been helping me a lot. It's been a challenge for me but I'm really enjoying it," he said.