Bukayo Saka earned his first senior start for Arsenal as the Gunners hosted Qarabag in their final fixture of the Europa League group stages. The 17-year-old has been rather impressive for both the u21s and u23s, this season, and likely earned his spot following the rumoured injury to another Arsenal youngster – Emile Smith-Rowe.
Interestingly, tomorrow will be three months to the day in which Saka signed his first professional contract with the London club. Today, he produced a very promising performance as he became the first player to start for Arsenal who was born in the 21st century.
Going into the game, Unai Emery decided to alter the formation for the Europa League clash, switching from a rotating 3-4-3 formation to a 4-2-3-1 system. Initially, Saka was positioned on the left flank in attack and was joined by Eddie Nketiah on the opposing flank, Mesut Ozil down the middle, and Alexandre Lacazette leading the line, up front.
The young winger experienced his first proper bit of action just before ten minutes as he found the ball on his right foot following a corner. The 17-year-old decided to cut inside from the right flank onto his left foot but his curling shot was saved by Qarabag’s goalkeeper, Vagner da Silva.
With Arsenal focusing a majority of their attack down the right flank, Saka had a bit of a quiet game in the first half. However, that’s not to say he had a bad half. His movement off the ball was very good and he always looked like he wanted to increase the tempo in what was a pretty dull half of football.
Additionally, considering how confident he looked on the ball, I would have liked to have seen how he’d fare playing on the right flank in comparison to the left. Saka would have got a lot more opportunities on the ball on the right, and he looks like the type of player that loves to cut inside onto his more confident left foot. However, at the same time, it’s worth mentioning that Eddie Nketiah produced a great performance on this flank.
In the second half, Saka had a lot more opportunities on the ball to showcase his ability and he definitely grew in confidence. There were many occasions in the second half where he would use his bursts of energy to beat his man and try to create an opportunity.
This came into fruition in the 75th minute in what was undoubtedly the 17-year-old’s best play of the game. Saka did very well to beat his man on the left and the weight of his cross into the box was perfect for Nketiah to connect his head too. It’s a shame the latter was a fraction offside because he really deserved that goal while Saka was very unlucky to not register his first senior assist for the club.
In regards to his end product, there’s definitely room for improvement but there are positive signs there. Personally, I think his biggest error is where he decided to place his decisive shot at around the 85th minute. The winger’s movement was outstanding during Arsenal’s counter-attack and he did well to meet Ainsley Maitland-Niles cross. But, he should have done a lot better with his opportunity when he was one-on-one with the keeper to become one of Arsenal’s youngest ever scorers in Europe.
Taking into consideration the fact that Arsenal lacks a natural winger, it felt like a complete breath of fresh air watching Bukayo Saka versus Qarabag, tonight. The 17-year-old produced a very promising performance and in the end was arguably one of Arsenal’s best players on the night. It’s games like these where Saka will learn from his errors, but I’m excited to see what the future holds for him.
My verdict – 8.5/10