FROM THE GTECH COMMUNITY STADIUM – Arsenal are still trying to find a way to effectively play through midfield without Granit Xhaka. Could you imagine that sentence at any point during the first six years of his seven-season stay in north London?
The Switzerland international was one of the unlikely heroes of the Gunners’ Premier League title charge last season, not only bringing bite and elegance to the starting XI, but precious goal contributions – seven goals, seven assists.
Xhaka opted to back away from fresh contract talks with Arsenal in order to return to the Bundesliga with Bayer Leverkusen this summer. Few predicted Mikel Arteta would choose to replace him with Kai Havertz.
After all, the German had hardly impressed in three seasons at Chelsea, mostly playing as a busy but misfiring striker. Shifting him into Xhaka’s role has so far proved fanciful.
The kindest way of spinning Havertz’s performances so far are he has hardly been of direct detriment to his team. He’s shanked a couple of gilt-edged chances in that time so ‘hardly been’ is the most accurate description.
That story was similar in Arsenal’s 1-0 win at Brentford in the Carabao Cup. Havertz kept play ticking and covered a lot of ground – even blocking a few crosses, though mostly by simply being tall – but lacked a decisive edge when there wasn’t acres of space to play into.
His match was contrasted with Emile Smith Rowe, who was making his first start for Arsenal in 499 days.
Arsenal fans fell in love with Smith Rowe during a breakout 2021/22 season, proving a reliable scorer from the wing. Injuries have seen him lose that spot to Gabriel Martinelli, but he is clearly still of use to Arteta.
Smith Rowe was tested in a deeper midfield role adjacent to Havertz on Wednesday. Where Arsenal’s £65m summer signing lacked confidence and conviction, their academy product showed endeavour and drive. One player treated the ball with smothering care and the other like a weapon. Stylistically, Smith Rowe is more prototypically Arsenal than Havertz.
There was one notable run in the first half where Smith Rowe danced and pranced his way past a forest of Brentford legs, forcing a low save out of goalkeeper Mark Flekken.
That was the end of his highlight reel for the evening, though he didn’t shy away from possession. Arteta’s reintegration of Smith Rowe has been a slow and steady one, but there’s enough to suggest this experiment could have more legs than the Havertz one.
Arsenal at least have options and competition to start alongside key duo Declan Rice and Martin Odegaard in the heart of midfield. Arteta has long preached the need to have such a headache.