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African All Stars

Arteta witnesses the best & worst of Aubameyang & Saka

00:37 GMT 23/12/2019
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang Arsenal 2019-20
Arsenal's new coach witnessed the qualities and the limitations of two of his African stars when the Gunners travelled to Everton this weekend

by James O'Conners

Arsenal travelled to Goodison Park to face Everton on Saturday with new manager Mikel Arteta in attendance to assess the tools at his disposal.

With an injury crisis at left-back for Arsenal as both Kieran Tierney (dislocated shoulder) and Sead Kolasinac (ankle ligaments) missed out, Freddie Ljungberg turned to Bukayo Saka in that role against Everton.

He had performed that duty relatively well in the defeat to Manchester City after being introduced as a substitute.

In attack, Nicolas Pepe paid the price for his lacklustre display in the City defeat by being dropped to the bench, but Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang continued up front in preference to Alexandre Lacazette.

For Everton, Alex Iwobi started on the left of the midfield four, but after three unsustainable workhorse appearances in 15 days, he predictably broke down early on with a hamstring problem and had to be withdrawn.

In an awful first-half for Arsenal, where they desperately struggled to get the ball into the final third, Aubameyang was virtually anonymous. With three young players in support of him, there was little real service, but he also found himself too static and unable to keep the ball when he did get it.

There was a pass around the corner given away, an aerial duel lost to Mason Holgate from a David Luiz diagonal and losing a ground duel against Yerry Mina. He was also doing little to stop the latter from clipping passes into the right channel towards Dominic Calvert-Lewin, one of which drew Luiz into a foul in a dangerous area.

Arteta reportedly told his Arsenal players this week, according to sources in the dressing room, that he would be assessing the players on their attitude, body language and efforts—particularly without the ball.

In this context, it was not a first half that would have enamoured Arsenal captain Auba to his new coach. 

It is not clear if Arteta spoke to his players at half-time, but there was certainly a difference in Aubameyang’s second-half performance.

Immediately, the captain dropped deeper and ran with the ball. Then he moved into the channel to attempt a one-two with Saka. There was an instinctive effort as he got to a flick-on from a corner at the back post and forced a good save out of Jordan Pickford with a shinned shot.

Soon after, Lucas Torreira found him in the box for another effort but it lacked power. There were still numerous passes given away and no real improvement in defensive effort, but at least he had availed himself to his young teammates by working the channels or dropping deeper in the second period.

With talk on the day after the game of Real Madrid considering a move for Aubameyang and the controversy last week over his brother posting less than favourable comments about Arteta’s appointment, the writing could be on the wall for the captain.

If he is going to be a major part of the new coach’s plans, a complete change in defensive application in terms of pressing and counter-pressing will be needed, as will more selfless movement and greater involvement in attack.

One player who Arteta would surely have been impressed by, though, was Saka, even if his strong outing at left-back came in a very specific context; he was not facing a direct opponent, as Tom Davies lined up in a narrow role on the right for Everton to give extra protection to his central midfielders.

A tired-looking Everton team also lacked their recent intensity under Duncan Ferguson and there were very few crosses for Saka to defend at the back post.

On the rare occasions that Calvert-Lewin positioned himself on the makeshift left-back for diagonals, it was a mismatch.

Nevertheless, he generally defended solidly in his other direct actions, like facing Djibril Sidibe dribbles from deeper areas.

When he had to deal with quick interplay, he was less certain and there were numerous passes played into the space behind him when he was drawn out to engage Sidibe.

Twice in the first ten minutes, Luiz had to move out to the touchline to cover his left-back and before half-time, Davies made a diagonal run to receive behind Saka from Sidibe’s pass and it led to a reasonable Everton opening. In the 17th minute, Richarlison found space inside the box and Saka did well to block the effort.

On the ball, Saka was impressive in his passing, particularly a lovely slide-rule pass to send Gabriel Martinelli in-behind on the left early in the second half.

One good run and attempted one-two nearly created something too, but Aubameyang’s return pass was under-hit, whilst he also led one good counter-attack in Arsenal’s best period at the start of the second half.

As Davies tired, Saka twice made good challenges on him and drove forward after winning the ball; the second of which saw Gylfi Sigurdsson chop him down and take a yellow card.

In the coming weeks and months, with Tierney out until March after surgery and Kolasinac set for a month on the sidelines, Arteta may need to continue turning to Saka in that role.

With his impressive passing, carrying of the ball and comfort at protecting from bigger opponents in tight spaces, he could be ideal for an inverted full-back role – moving into midfield when Arsenal have the ball – much like we have seen from Fabian Delph and Oleksandr Zinchenko at Manchester City.