by James O'Conners
For one of the biggest games of Arsenal’s season, Unai Emery took the big call to start Bukayo Saka on the flank in his side’s 4-3-3 formation against Manchester United on Monday evening. It was yet further evidence that the Anglo-Nigerian wonderkid is set to play a big role for the Gunners this season.
Monday’s fixture may not possess the quality or intensity of clashes between the pair over the last 20 years, but it was still a major call to include Saka, who became the youngest player to start a match between these two sides in the Premier League era.
Starting on the left flank, Saka had a relatively slow start in terms of attacking influence as United had more of the ball. However, the starlet showed good responsibility in defending against Ashley Young, blocking passes forward or engaging him before he could deliver crosses. By full-time, he had made five tackles.
Saka’s first real attacking opening came in the 20th minute as he led a counter attack, burst through midfield and was pulled back in a dangerous area by Jesse Lingard. His two biggest first-half attacking contributions came in linking with Nicolas Pepe.
First, Saka played a one-two with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, won the ball back after it broke loose and picked out Pepe on the opposite side. However, the Ivory Coast winger skied his shot high and wide.
Then, on the brink of half-time, Arsenal broke after a United corner, Pepe’s underhit pass was somehow missed by Andreas Pereira, and Saka found himself up against Victor Lindelof. He hit a low shot across goal which David De Gea saved down to his left.
Though a decent attempt, Robin Van Persie told Premier League TV where Saka could have done better: “He can do slightly more to make more space for himself. Go at him, make a dummy, make a move. He’s going straight which makes the angle a bit tight for him to shoot, but great save.”
In the second half, Saka continued to show for the ball with his back to goal. Despite his slight frame, he would receive and look to hold off Young. One lovely spin inside saw him beat the right back twice before being fouled.
Of course, the two big moments in the half came just before the hour mark.
First, with Arsenal pressing three versus four on the right side, he came inside, spotting a possible trigger to press any sideways pass. When Axel Tuanzebe’s square ball was loose, Saka immediately cautioned a pass for Aubameyang to run through on goal and finish. With his weaker foot, it was an impressive assist.
In his analysis on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football, Jamie Carragher was effusive of the winger’s role in the goal: “What I love about what he does is he reads and smells the danger. Watch his reaction, he thinks ‘something could happen’ and he’s making up ground to press Lindelof and then to actually produce the weight of pass into Aubameyang.
“We always talk about defenders sensing danger but sometimes it’s the attackers,” he added. “He was there to close down Lindelof, he knew something was going to happen, and that shows he has gained intelligence.”
Soon after, he should have given Arsenal the lead.
As Calum Chambers broke in-behind the defence, Saka moved onto the penalty spot and shot first time with his right foot. Lindelof fortunately managed to deflect the attempt over the bar.
Saka was taken off after 79 minutes after a good shift. This performance showed he is a mature player for his age, strong defensively and has courage to receive, and keep, the ball in tight spaces.
He does not look to be the sort of wide player to beat opponents for sheer pace, either with the ball or running in behind, but is more of a tricky performer who link with those around him. In that way, he is very different to Pepe on the other side.
Saka is a player. 18 years old showing great maturity 👏🏻— Cesc Fàbregas Soler (@cesc4official) September 30, 2019
Speaking of the €80million man on the right flank, it was a disappointing outing against United, and he must improve against Standard Liege on Thursday and Bournemouth on Sunday.
Up against makeshift left-back Axel Tuanzebe, he rarely looked to take him on, whilst also struggling to get separation to turn and face goal.
There were two weak attempts at goal, one which went well wide and another which lacked power and was easily saved. With Tuanzebe often tight to him, Pepe had four poor first touches which lost him the ball and on another occasion, he had the young left-back one versus one and instead floated a poor cross into De Gea’s arms.
Aside from that, his lack of defensive work meant Chambers spent much of the game trying to contain Daniel James’ pace. In the ninth minute, Tuanzebe easily beat Pepe and released James in behind, forcing Chambers to commit a foul and take a yellow card.
His game ended after 73 minutes as he was the second Arsenal man taken off, whilst Saka remained on the pitch. After the game, Roy Keane was typically brutal in his assessment on the Ivory Coast winger’s performance.
Speaking on Sky Sports, the former United captain said: “I’m disappointed with him since he’s come to the club, not great body language.
“You see this young kid tonight [Saka], Pepe compared to him for the money they paid, he needs to do a lot more – his work rate, his lack of quality, his end product, his body language. He didn’t seem up for the fight tonight.”
Arsenal’s front man Aubameyang continued his incredible run of form – 17 goals in his last 17 competitive matches – with a typically superb finish. Having been sent through by Saka, his left-footed dink over De Gea was a lovely final touch.
After the Liverpool defeat in August – the only game this season where ‘Auba’ has failed to score – his record for Arsenal against the rest of the big six did not make for particularly impressive reading.
After that game, he had scored in just three of 17 league and cup games against Arsenal’s big six rivals. Since then, he has netted really good finishes against both Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United, both times from the central striker role.
Against the Red Devils on Monday, he moved wide in the latter part of the first half to try to get some touches of the ball. Against some tight marking, he was not heavily involved in this match (just 14 completed passes) and lost the ball when showing between the lines a few times.
His goal came from his only shot at goal, and means that since joining the Gunners, no Premier League player has scored more league goals than him, with Mohamed Salah also on 39.
Since his debut for Arsenal, his goals had to the most points won of any players in the division (32), more than Harry Kane (25) and Salah (17). He is not only a great goalscorer, but a scorer of crucial goals at key moments.
The other African connection on display was Tuanzebe, who was born in Democratic Republic of Congo, but moved to England at the age of four.
He generally had a fine game at left-back, but his loose ball led to the equaliser.
Giving chances to young players, even one who captained United in midweek in the Carabao Cup, will bring the odd mistake due to inexperience.
There was far more good than bad in his display, and he’s another player who should use the Europa League to gain the experience required to become a key operator at Old Trafford.
The biggest talking points going forward will be Pepe’s slow start to life at Arsenal, how to accommodate him tactically, and Saka’s international future.
There has already been talk that the winger may prefer to play for The Super Eagles despite his extensive outings for the England age-group sides, and Nigeria should move fast, before he reaches the level of attention that Tammy Abraham and Fikayo Tomori are getting.
By then, it may be too late.