And how the two can help solve some of Arsenal’s most pressing issues
By Max Taylor and Jon Ollington
Arsenal and Mikel Arteta’s start to 2021/22 has been, to put it kindly, difficult. Three consecutive losses to start the Premier League season has piled the pressure on the Spaniard to quickly turn results around. Many very familiar themes have been all too apparent throughout Arsenal’s opening fixtures – most notably a lack of creativity in advanced areas and an overreliance on the left-hand-side (namely Kieran Tierney) to produce opportunities, which in turn results in an imbalanced and lopsided attacking shape.
The need to resolve these problematic themes is clear. How Arteta can accomplish that, however, is far less obvious.
Arsenal’s best run of form in 2020/21 transpired shortly after the introduction of Emile Smith Rowe to the first-team and the loan signing of Martin Odegaard – who has now arrived on a permanent deal from Real Madrid. Questions surrounding what Odegaard’s signing meant for Smith Rowe came up then, and they’ve returned now. Does this mean Smith Rowe is shifted out wide, to his hindrance? How do you fit both in the same side? Does Odegaard’s signing actually fix any of Arsenal’s current issues?
Perhaps there is reason for Arteta’s persistent pursuit of the Norwegian midfielder. Pinning the creative issues on a 21-year-old in his first full season of top-flight football felt very naive, so adding Odegaard to the mix makes sense. But why has Arteta gone for him when other options were available?
Throughout this article – using words, data visuals, and video – we explain why Smith Rowe and Odegaard’s stylistic differences as ‘no. 10s’ make them complementary pieces in Arsenal’s midfield, and how pairing them together will go a long way in solving Arsenal’s most pressing problems.
Part 1: Striking a balance, both in shape and stylistically
There have been fears about how Emile Smith Rowe and Martin Odegaard can fit effectively into the same side, with both primarily seen as ‘no 10s’ – but the positions they move to receive the ball, the areas they play into, and the types of passes they attempt differ quite substantially:
Emile Smith Rowe
In the majority of his Premier League starts, especially without Odegaard in the side, Smith Rowe has been deployed on the teamsheet as a conventional no. 10 – but the areas he drifts towards and the spaces he infiltrates are very different to that of a traditional central playmaker.
The ball reception graphic emphasizes exactly this – he predominantly receives possession on either flank, while his actions in the middle of the pitch are fairly limited. His tendency to drift wide is vital for multiple reasons – 1) his inside-out movement opens central pockets for teammates to exploit, and 2) it enables him to form combinations with other wide players and overloads vs. an isolated fullback.
Rather than aiming to impact games in central areas, Smith Rowe is best when he moves into the half-spaces, or even closer to the touchline. He thrives in tight, highly occupied pockets of space. The combination of a really purposeful first touch and a strong initial burst of pace allows him to consistently play short layoffs before quickly moving into open space. This is illustrated by his pass sonar (bottom right visual) which highlights his tendency to play short backwards passes. His one or two-touch combination play is so impressive – smart layoffs, neat flicks, and one-twos are a massive part of his game.
These quick, dynamic, sharp passages of interplay is shown in the open play pass cluster (the top right visual), which displays the most frequent passes Smith Rowe plays. Smith Rowe rarely holds onto the ball for long (unless receiving on the half-turn and driving at the opposition), but instead has the ability to set the game tempo to his preference – picking the right moments to offload quickly and consistently executing the basics well – often doing so with simpler passes in the half-spaces.
There’s potential for a real balance to be struck in Arsenal’s midfield when you consider how Martin Odegaard compares to the Englishman. His ball reception map illustrates his propensity to receive possession in the right-half space in forward areas.
However, unlike Smith Rowe, Odegaard also spends much of his time in more central areas, often moving into pockets of space between the opposition midfield and defence to make himself available. This, combined with how he uses the ball and the types of passes he attempts, is what really differentiates the two. Odegaard’s passing range (shown via the pass radar) is more varied than Smith Rowe’s and highlights a tendency to try longer and more difficult passes, specifically diagonal from left-to-right. Odegaard’s tempo is also far more relaxed, often waiting for the more incisive pass rather than offloading quickly and moving away sharply.
Odegaard excels at moving into dangerous areas between the lines, and he’s great at a variety of actions when the ball reaches him. While he often opts for the simpler shorter layoff, he’s fantastic at receiving on the half turn and advancing possession with forward passes. Smith Rowe’s ability to speed tempo through his sharp movement is his strength, while Odegaard is superb at timing his actions – consistently drawing in defenders before finding a teammate in the space vacated by the opposition.
His most common passes highlights his proneness to drifting to the right half-space and attempting a wide range of pass types: lots towards the right touchline into the wide player’s path, some more shorter combinations, and others into more central areas of the pitch.
Part 2: Creativity and xThreat – how do the two differ in their creative tendencies?
Much like the two differ in the ways they receive and pass the ball, Smith Rowe and Odegaard also vary in how they create chances.
Smith Rowe’s actions in advanced areas are more so in the mould of a facilitator than an outright creator. His creativity comes in two forms: first, in his penetrative and sharp movements that unlocks space for teammates in dangerous areas, and secondly, through his powerful progressive ball carrying ability.
The second is illustrated in the below visual, which shows both players’ progressive carries during the 2020/21 season. Not only did Smith Rowe complete far more than Odegaard, but his were often over longer distances and into more advanced areas. Smith Rowe has shown a growing ability to open his body and receive on the half turn and drive forward in one motion, often allowing him to escape markers with ease. This, mixed with the ability to carry the ball with real power, allows him to constantly commit defenders before finding teammates in profitable areas.
Understandably (considering where he receives the ball) these carries usually take place in wide areas, most often when he forms overloads on the left with Tierney and drives at the opposition fullback. And this too is where he regularly creates opportunities – often in the form of slide-rule passes or cutbacks from the byline after a driving run into the final third.
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And where Smith Rowe lacks in his chance creation is where Odegaard excels. While not nearly as powerful of a ball carrier, the Norwegian’s ability to identify and execute incisive passes is far more refined. Odegaard tends to create opportunities in more central areas, and often knows his next step before he even receives the ball, constantly scanning the space beyond him to locate a pass that can unlock rigid backlines and deep blocks. He’s also excellent at concealing the angle of his pass, angling his body to trick defenders into misinterpreting the direction it will go. He’s comfortable dropping deeper, too, getting the ball off center backs before progressing possession with well-weighted passes into stride.
His ability to break lines on the dribble isn’t a primary aspect of his game, but nobody else in this Arsenal side offers the vision, especially in the final third, that Odegaard does. The combination of Smith Rowe’s movement, ability on the half turn, and powerful ball-carrying paired with Odegaard’s understanding of space and final ball makes for an exciting and potentially effective attacking pair.
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Their contrasting creative tendencies are depicted in the below Expected Threat visual – a metric that shows how significantly players increase the chances of scoring based on their actions in possession.
Odegaard’s ability to play both dangerous final balls and set up teammates to play threatening passes is fantastic – he ranked 1st at the club in his total xT involvement last season. Smith Rowe, on the other hand, is not as relentless in his overall involvement, but it is interesting that his highest was ‘xT facilitated,’ proving that his driving forward runs are effective before playing the ‘pass before the final pass.’
This is further emphasized by the below xT heatmap – which shows where both players are most threatening through either open play passes or carrying. These results align with what we’ve seen previously: Smith Rowe is most prolific in his chance creation from the half spaces (predominantly on the left), while Odegaard does so from central areas and the right-half space. Smith Rowe’s actions generally begin slightly deeper too, highlighting the danger he possesses when carrying the ball from deep.
Why does this benefit Arsenal?
When comparing the two midfielders, it makes sense that Smith Rowe was not entrusted to be Arsenal’s sole midfield creative force. While much of his best qualities are key in progressing play forward, opening space for teammates, and linking play in advanced areas, his ability to unlock defences with incisive final passes is not close to the level of Odegaard’s. And not only do their differing qualities as creators complement each other, but using both Odegaard and Smith Rowe together gives Arsenal flexibility, added creativity, and allows Arteta to deploy the shape he desires.
And not only that, but it doesn’t mitigate the threat Tierney possesses as an attacking force. The signing of Tomisayu also helps achieve this balance, allowing Smith Rowe and Odegaard to play in their desired spaces while the width offered by Tierney and Saka still exists.
It will be interesting to see if Arteta can turn Arsenal fortunes around, but if he wants to do so, leaning on the duo of Smith Rowe and Odegaard would not be a terrible idea.