It was after last month’s 3-1 win over Aston Villa and yet another man-of-the-match display by Mikel Arteta’s new No 10 that the Arsenal manager suggested something was different now about Emile Smith Rowe. “Emile’s changed the way that he’s living a little bit as well and some habits that he had,” he said.
“When you want to take your game to the next level, when you become a really important player in such a big club, that should become the only priority and every detail is important and relevant. You have to make them aware of that – you cannot give percentages away that can make big differences.”
As an answer, it was as equal parts cryptic and surprising. Arteta refused to specify the changes made by a young player who has only ever appeared to act with a maturity beyond his 21 years, as if singularly focused and dedicated on becoming one of the homegrown hopes of Arsenal’s new era.
But Smith Rowe has one guilty pleasure. “Chocolate,” he admits.
“I think he was talking about my diet. I didn’t used to eat that well, to be honest. I used to get cramp after 60 minutes and stuff. I wasn’t eating great, I wasn’t drinking that well, before games I wasn’t really that hydrated but since then I’ve tried to focus so much on it.”
It was a sweet tooth rather than a taste for takeaways that was the problem, even if he admits to liking Nandos “a lot”, and it’s not as if there wasn’t a strict nutrition regime in place at Arsenal’s Hale End academy. It just often went ignored. “I didn’t really listen to be honest, I think that’s where I went wrong. But now I’m listening,” Smith Rowe insists. “All the time.”
Smith Rowe still lives at home and his family helped at first, preparing meals to help keep track of what he ate, but Arsenal have since taken matters into their own hands by employing a private chef to come round every night.
“My mum normally cooks but she doesn’t have to cook any more,” he says, with the chef also cooking her meals. It’s pointed out that revealing this doesn’t say much for his mum’s own culinary skills. “I know, I know, she’s going to be fuming,” he jokes. “But she wants the best for me and if that’s what I’ve got to do, I’ll do that.”
If nutrition was the one thing holding him back, then the change in diet has helped him to go strength to strength. The pasta and fish dishes served up daily by his new chef have fuelled Smith Rowe’s rise to becoming one of Arsenal’s key players and one of the Premier League’s most impressive performers in these opening months of the season. Five goals in 13 games – including three in his last three in the league – have now propelled him to his first England senior call-up. A first cap may not be far away.
It is a remarkable fast rise when you consider that, less than a year ago, he was still on the fringes of Arteta’s first team squad, playing here and there without the consistent minutes required for a young player to deliver consistent performances.
The real breakthrough moment came on Boxing Day and the 3-1 win over Chelsea which not only inspired a dramatic turnaround in Arsenal’s miserable form, but also ushered in a new, bolder era which suddenly feels laced with promise once more.
Arteta’s show of faith in Smith Rowe – informing him that he would be starting in the team hotel on the day of the game – was a factor in him playing so well from the off, he says, but so too, interestingly, were the empty stands. “No fans definitely helped me,” he says, albeit while stressing how special it is to play at the Emirates. “I’m always really nervous before the game and not having that pressure of everyone shouting, that helped me a lot.”
Smith Rowe admits to having struggled with nerves at times, suggesting that they may even have affected his development in the years leading up to his loan spell at RB Leipzig, where a groin injury meant he played a total of just 28 minutes across three substitute appearances. That proved particularly tough. Were there times when he thought he may not make it? “100 per cent,” he says. “[Leipzig] was a frustrating period. I moved to Germany at 18, by myself as well, my family couldn’t come out. It was tough. It wasn’t actually an injury where I knew what it was, it was like a growing pain that I had in my groin. I didn’t have a timescale, no one told me how long it would take. I was just working each day, not knowing what to do.”
He still gets nervous, too. Though like his difficult spell in Germany, he would not change his pre-match jitters. “Maybe it helps, maybe it’s a good thing,” he adds and, at the moment, he certainly seems to be taking it all in his stride. “I’m quite surprised to be honest that it’s worked out this way. I thought I wouldn’t be as confident as I am at the moment.” Become an England international this week and he will be standing even taller still.
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