There were times earlier this season when Bukayo Saka was a one-man release valve for Arsenal: the only player happy receiving the ball in a tight spot, a lone ranger between opposition lines and their attack’s sole source of forward momentum.
Fortunately for Mikel Arteta’s improving team, Emile Smith Rowe and January loan signing Martin Odegaard have diversified Arsenal’s creative reserves. Yet on a frustrating night against Benfica, it was Saka who delivered a potentially crucial away goal.
The close-range equaliser, two minutes after Arsenal had fallen behind to Pizzi’s penalty, was Saka’s 10th goal in all competitions. According to Opta, since the start of last season Saka is the youngest Premier League player to hit double figures for both goals and assists in all competitions at 19 years and 166 days. It is worth recalling that 12 months ago he was Arsenal’s left-back.
While Saka’s intelligence and versatility have attracted praise from all quarters since his promotion to the first-team, he is now adding end product at a rollocking rate: five goals and an assist since Boxing Day.
The dart across the box to connect with Cedric Soares’ low cross was reminiscent of the tap-ins Raheem Sterling added to his game at Manchester City, where Arteta was a coach. Sterling’s scratchy ball-striking and erratic finishing was much maligned, but City helped him sniff out so many high-quality chances from close to goal this ceased to matter (Saka is actually a more natural striker of a ball).
The through ball from Odegaard to free Cedric was also similar to the passes David Silva loved to slip between full-back and centre-half. It is the type of precise attacking play Arteta wants, though you could question whether Arsenal were forceful enough in a game where they only managed seven shots.
For a player who has not spent much of his short career in the penalty area, Saka is starting to show goalscoring instincts.
“He’s been really important in recent results,” Arteta said. “His form is probably the highest it’s been since I’ve been here and he’s been really consistent.”
Arsenal settled on a new attacking balance against Leeds and Benfica which makes it all the more important for Saka to make tangible contributions.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang starting centrally in front of three technical players – Saka, Odegaard and Smith Rowe – gives Arsenal a sleeker, streamlined look and facilitates smoother football. But a potential drawback is the lack of a secondary goal threat, with Nicolas Pepe, Alexandre Lacazette and Gabriel Martinelli on the bench. Odegaard looks a more natural provider while Smith Rowe is an important part of Arsenal’s build-up play, so there is responsibility on Saka to weigh in with goals and assists. The only concern is that Arsenal are too reliant on him.
Arteta said: “We have to protect him and keep expectations where they should be, but I’m not going to put a brake in his development. We have to support him. Give him the best possible advice all the time and then manage his minutes so he can maintain the level.”
Rather like Leicester City and Jamie Vardy, playing a low-involvement centre-forward is only a problem when that striker fails to score and Aubameyang had a night to forget in front of goal in Rome. It would be sugar-coating things to describe his performance as positive given the three chances he missed, but it could be a portent for good times to come.
When Aubameyang was struggling in the season’s early months, Arsenal were failing to get him on the end of moves or taking shots. At one stage, Harry Maguire had worked the goalkeeper more frequently in Premier League games. That trend was far more worrying than the occasional missed sitter.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang missed three good chances against Benfica CREDIT: AFP
There were fears that Aubameyang would be too easy to smother and disconnect from Arsenal’s other attackers as a No 9, but they appear unfounded based on the last two games. Aubameyang scored a hat-trick against Leeds, hit the post and had another close-range chance blocked. He walked away with the match ball rejuvenated on Sunday and was the villain of the piece on Thursday, but there was little to separate the two performances.
Chance conversion is a fickle business and the life of the striker is about coping with its cruel variance. The important thing for Arsenal and Aubameyang is that the chances keep coming. If they do, the goals will flow. The time to worry is when your striker doesn’t get the chance to miss a chance.