In Arsenal's usual story of struggle, a teenager provides some hope
There have been a few positives to savour for the Arsenal fans, not least in the form of English teenager Bukayo Saka.
It has been a turbulent season at Arsenal Football Club. After a disastrous start to the campaign that saw them plunge to 15th in the Premier League standings with just 14 points from 14 games, the ship has somewhat steadied at the Emirates Stadium.
The Gunners are now 11th in the league with 34 points from 25 games and are in the last 16 of the Europa League after Thursday night’s thrilling win over Benfica in Athens – 3-2 on the night and 4-3 on aggregate. Having already been knocked out of the FA Cup and the League Cup, the Europa League now represents the only chance of a trophy for the Gunners.
Yet the North London club has disappointed yet again; they were expected to pose a stiffer challenge to their biggest domestic rivals in the league this season after their FA Cup and Community Shield victories in August. But there have been a few positives to savour for the Arsenal fans, not least in the form of English teenager Bukayo Saka, as was on display on Thursday night.
It was Saka’s incisive through ball to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang that saw the latter give Arsenal the lead in the first half. By spotting Aubameyang’s run and laying the ball off at the right time and place, Saka made sure Benfica’s backline was in no position to intervene.
In a topsy-turvy game that saw Benfica equalise later in the first half, take the lead in the second and Kieran Tierney equalise for Arsenal, Saka once again proved decisive towards the end as his cross from the right flank was headed in by Aubameyang for the winner with minutes left on the clock.
There are two ways to look at 19-year-old Saka’s emergence as one of the most influential players, if not the most, at Arsenal. The first is that it reflects Arsenal's standing at present – that a teenager, in only his second full season in senior football, has so much say in the club’s fortunes on the pitch is an indictment of the quality of the Gunners’ squad and their bench strength.
At the same time, it is also an illustration of manager Mikel Arteta’s faith in young talent, a tradition that has been intrinsic to the club, particularly during the Arsene Wenger years. That Arteta has not shied away from handing Saka more responsibilities even during a tumultuous period, displays boldness.
"He's really humble, really respectful and at the same time has that character to demand the ball, to make decisions that are not very usual for his age. We need that leadership and he's gaining that with his attitude and his performances,” Arteta had said last month.
In his first full season, Saka was thrown into different positions – he ended up playing as a left wing-back, as left-back, as left winger and right winger. His versatility in terms of positioning, his ever-improving passing range and, notably, as mentioned by Arteta, his decision-making with the ball, has made him a regular feature in the Arsenal side in his second season. He already possesses devastating pace that, combined with his other qualities, make him a more potent threat than a conventional winger and a more unpredictable customer to deal with for a full-back.
Saka’s importance to this Arsenal side can be underlined by his number of minutes on the pitch – he has the most among outfield players across all competitions with 2497 minutes. Only goalkeeper Bernd Leno (2892 minutes) has played more than him this season. It has led to concerns that Saka could burn out from playing almost every game in an already tightly-packed season, something that even Arteta acknowledged after Thursday’s win.
“He is really fatigued. He has played a lot of minutes and he hasn’t had much rest. We asked him to go again and produce this moment, and the boy has done it against a really difficult formation with the way they were so deep and there were very small spaces, but he has found a way to do it again,” Arteta told reporters.
With six goals and seven assists in all competitions, Saka's form and fitness could be pivotal to Arsenal’s attempts to salvage the season. It will also be good news for England boss Gareth Southgate, who will undoubtedly be keeping an eye on the Arsenal youngster ahead of the Euros this summer.