It was after his magnificent return to the side against Chelsea on Boxing Day that Arsenal determined the time was right to begin negotiations with Emile Smith Rowe over a new contract.
The youngster had always been highly regarded by the club hierarchy and by his manager. When Smith Rowe was excelling on loan at Huddersfield Mikel Arteta visibly beamed at the prospect of working with the teenager. Injury slowed his ascent to the first team but when he finally arrived Arsenal were a different team.
With the 20-year-old in the side for Premier League matches Arsenal averaged 2.17 points per game over 18 matches with a goal difference of plus 21. Without him, their return was 1.1 points per game in 20 matches where they conceded five more than they scored. He has already proven himself to be a creator ready to start on a consistent basis for a top side.
Little wonder then that Aston Villa are prepared to test their resolve with a $35 million offer, nor that Real Madrid expressed an interest in Smith Rowe when Arsenal were negotiating to bring back Martin Odegaard following his half season loan at the club. Both were swiftly rejected with sources close to the club indicating that tripling that price tag still would not tempt them to sell. Instead the Gunners are optimistic that an extension to terms that expire in 2023 will be agreed.
Arsenal with and without Smith Rowe in the Premier League
Points per game
Expected goals per game
Chances created per game
Passes to penalty area per game
Yet even the presence of a bid from Villa ought to be cause for concern. A club who were in the Championship just over two years ago now believe they can snare one of the jewels in the Hale End crown. It has been more than six months since the prospect of a new contract was raised. In April talks accelerated with few games of significance left in a disappointing season, but nothing has been agreed. Arsenal are aware of what it would take to strike an agreement.
Time is not on their side. They are at best six months out from the same nervous situation they faced with Bukayo Saka, who reached the final year of his contract before signing a three year deal with an option for a further 12 months.
What should be a relatively brisk bit of business threatens to be lost in the morass of transfers incoming and outgoing they are attempting to complete this summer.
Hopes are fading of reaching an agreement with Real Madrid over Odegaard, who sees his future at the Santiago Bernabeu. Another option for an attacking midfielder who was to rival Smith Rowe has been lost as Aston Villa showed greater decisiveness to sign Emiliano Buendia from Norwich while the Gunners were working on Odegaard. There are further options, including Leicester City’s James Maddison, but meanwhile there are other irons in Arsenal’s fire.
An initial bid of $18 million for midfielder Albert Sami Lokonga of Anderlecht was rejected but that deal could be done relatively soon with the Belgian side holding out for a fee nearer the $24 million mark.
Arsenal are also eyeing Sheffield United goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale while their interest in Brentford’s David Raya would be reignited if there were any indication from the newly promoted side that a deal could be done.
Meanwhile in terms of outgoings Matteo Guendouzi is set to depart, Marseille are leading that particular race, with Granit Xhaka and Konstantinos Mavropanos also close to moves away to Roma and Stuttgart. Hector Bellerin is also expected to move to Spain though suggestions that he is close to Villarreal are not yet true with Unai Emery’s side one of many competing for his signature.
The most notable piece of business right now is Ben White, with a $56 million bid reportedly rejected by Brighton. There are those who believe that they will ultimately have to pay in excess of $70million to sign the England international. He is certainly a talent but it is less than two years since Arsenal paid $38million for William Saliba, yet to play a first team game for the Gunners. As things stand Arteta’s plan is still to give the 20-year-old chances to prove himself in preseason but fans who have seen their club take numerous wrong decisions in the market and beyond over recent years understandably have their doubts over whether the French center back is going to be given a real chance to fulfil the potential that had his club salivating over him as a teenager.
These potential moves speak to a desire to be aggressive in the market. It is fair to question why the same aggression is not being shown to tie down and reward one of the best performers of the season, one who has cost Arsenal next to nothing and delivered far more.
There is an internal acceptance that the Gunners need to improve and do so significantly. That goes up to ownership, who indicated that they would be prepared to offer their backing to an ambitious summer of spending.
Yet there are also questions of manpower. Arsenal have an inexperienced technical director in Edu, an inexperienced manager in Mikel Arteta and an inexperienced chief executive in Vinai Venkatesham. Richard Garlick’s recent recruitment from the Premier League offers rather more experience in the corridors of power but the director of football administration did not join until the closing weeks of the season.
There is a lot to be done and few weeks to do it in. In such circumstances it is all the more curious to allow to slip through the cracks relatively swift matters of business like extending the contract of a homegrown prospect who is already a reliable starter.