As Emile Smith Rowe smashed the ball past Martin Dubravka in extra time last night, it felt like the curtain finally came down on an era.
After seven years, 44 goals and more than 60 assists, the age of Mesut Ozil – one of the greatest creative midfielders the club has ever had – was brought to an end in emphatic fashion.
Arsenal’s young star entered into the fray shortly before the hour mark with the Gunners struggling to find the decisive pass or movement to unlock a stubborn Newcastle backline and, together with fellow substitutes Bukayo Saka and Alex Lacazette, combined in a moment of real quality that swung the tie decisively in the host’s favour.
It was a move worthy of winning any match and, beamed across the nation in a prime BBC One slot, saw Smith Rowe announced to the nation on the biggest stage.
Had it not been for VAR and its timely (and absolutely correct) intervention to overturn a ridiculous red card, it could have been so different for the 20-year-old, a real Sliding Doors moment. But, instead of talking about what might have been, we are talking about a new dawn for Arsenal as another young star rose to prominence.
And, with its rise, this particular star means we can say ‘thank you and farewell’ at last to one of our brightest of the past decade, Ozil. The German has never been far from anyone’s lips over the last two years as he has come in and out of the side as the Gunners have struggled badly without his creative influence, waning though it was.
The fervour seemed to reach boiling point again in defeat to Burnley in December, a match in which we again looked toothless, without guile or imagination. A recall seemed inevitable. But then, handed his chance against Chelsea on Boxing Day, Smith Rowe seized his moment and hasn’t looked back. His telling contribution against Newcastle last night, for me at least, at last puts the Ozil issue to rest. No longer do we need to pine for the talents of the 32-year-old German, we have a solution ready to take centre stage.
But look, that doesn’t mean we can place all of the burden on the young man. At 20, he may be good enough but he can’t be expected to do it all, every week. He is going to need some support. I’m sure when he arrived in the summer, Willian was meant to be the man doing what Smith Rowe is doing now but it hasn’t worked out that way.
Willian’s role from here will have to be as a utility man for the midfield, making the most of his experience to bring some technical security to matches and differing scenarios. His status as a starter is, for now, out of the question. If Ozil is to move on in this window, we ought to be looking to bring in some experience to work alongside Smith Rowe for the remainder of the season, someone with the experience and talent enough to contribute in the creative sense.
For now, though, let’s just enjoy the rise of a genuine star in this Arsenal team, another one who seems to be of the same calibre of Saka, two young men to take us forward into the future, alongside the likes of Kieran Tierney, Gabriel Martinelli, Gabriel Magalhaes and others. That’s an exciting prospect.
I’ve said before – and we have seen countless times before – that football is sometimes about seizing your opportunity when it comes. Hector Bellerin did it, Emi Martinez did it and now, it feels like Smith Rowe has done it to.
If this is to be the ending of the Ozil era and the dawning of Emile’s era, it could scarcely have happened in a more emphatic way or on a bigger stage.