Emile Smith Rowe Arsenal's gem in the making but patience needed to usurp Ozil, Mkhitaryan
You can keep your multi-million pound superstar signings: nothing in football generates emotion and excitement quite like a homegrown teenage talent announcing themselves on the senior scene. That potent mix of boundless potential stretching out to the horizon and the inherent pride in having developed such a talent. In 17-year-old Emile Smith Rowe's goal against Atletico Madrid on Thursday, Arsenal had one of these precious moments to enjoy.
In truth, the nature of the internet age means no young player can be a complete unknown when they make their first venture into the first team. For Jack Wilshere a decade ago, it was a YouTube clip of a stunning goal he scored in a reserve match against, appropriately enough, West Ham. For Smith Rowe, the method of delivery had become more direct: tweets from Arsenal and the player himself showcasing some of his electric moments in the FA Youth Cup last season.
Smith Rowe was being talked about in Arsenal circles as a player of real promise but his progression has accelerated dramatically this summer. The 17-year-old impressed Unai Emery in training after being picked out by club staff as a potential breakthrough talent and showed some clever touches in the 8-0 friendly win over Borehamwood. But still, he was shocked to learn he would be in the travelling party this week. "I found out the day before," he said. "The kitman gave me a suitcase and said 'you are travelling to Singapore.'" On Thursday, he took his chance emphatically when handed a start against Europa League winners Atletico Madrid.
Playing alongside Aaron Ramsey in a midfield three, with new signing Matteo Guendouzi also enjoying a bright performance as the holding player, Smith Rowe demonstrated an advanced level of football intelligence and relished the chance to show off his pace, close control and finishing. Everything came together early in the second half when he scored Arsenal's only goal of the game with a sensational run and finish into the top corner from outside the box.
Goals in preseason friendlies are not supposed to hold a great deal of importance, but that changes when it's your first at senior level, and when it hints that the club might just have a transcendent new talent in its midst. It will be hard to contain expectations now. Those hoping for another coming-of-age moment in Arsenal's next outing will be encouraged to know that the friendly against Paris Saint-Germain on Saturday falls on Smith Rowe's 18th birthday.
In the summer when Wilshere left the club to join West Ham it is surely a strange coincidence that another teenage playmaker has made his name. Wilshere even gave the Croydon-born Smith Rowe, who moved to Hale End in 2010 at the age of 10, his seal of approval before leaving. "He's one that has come over and trained with us a few times," he said in May. "You can always tell if a player is special if they come across and it doesn't faze them and they play their own game, and Emile is like that."
Not that he particularly mirrors Wilshere in terms of style. His predecessor was ambitiously compared to Dennis Bergkamp and Liam Brady when he first came through, all clever touches and brilliant passes. Smith Rowe, if we are reaching for lofty parallels, modelled himself on Lionel Messi as a youngster and bears nascent resemblance to Kevin de Bruyne in the way he carries the ball with pace and control.
But let's not get carried away. If Wilshere's departure has in theory opened up a spot for a creative influence in the centre of the park, the truth is that Mesut Ozil and Alex Iwobi will both push Smith Rowe down the list of priorities. With Henrikh Mkhitaryan also playmaking from advanced positions and the arrival of both Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira this summer strengthening options at the back of midfield it's unlikely we will see too much of Smith Rowe when the real football starts. This season could instead be all about Reiss Nelson -- who looked excellent against Atleti and has his own huge promise to deliver on.
Still, as Emery tries to take Arsenal forward into a bright new future, the emergence of a potential wonderkid unearthed just weeks into his reign has an inescapable symbolism. Football history may be littered with those who faded away after a luminescent start -- but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be excited about this one.