Soccer

Bukayo Saka and the £175m problem faced by Mikel Arteta at Arsenal

Arsenal: Where are they heading under Arteta?

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Bukayo Saka’s performance against Slavia Prague brought the struggles of some of his team-mates into sharp focus as Arsenal were held 1-1 by Slavia Prague in the first leg of their Europa League quarter-final. Saka was back in the starting line-up for Thursday’s first-leg clash as one of six changes made by Mikel Arteta  – which included skipper Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Nicolas Pepe being dropped to the bench before they eventually combined for the Gunners’ goal.

Aubameyang and Pepe produced the desired response to being benched, with the former setting up the latter to open the scoring after both came on late in the game.

But Arsenal paid for failing to make their dominance count earlier in the game, after Tomas Holes scored what could prove a crucial away goal with his last-ditch equaliser.

Saka had been full of his usual energy before being replaced late on, as he marauded down the Gunners’ right flank in a bid to open up the Slavia defence.

But it is becoming increasingly obvious that the 19-year-old is having to bear too much of the attacking responsibility on his young shoulders while more experienced team-mates struggle to have an impact on games.

That was the case during the first half at the Emirates on Thursday night, when again and again, Saka was the attacking outlet for the Gunners, with his team-mates failing to get on the end of a number of crosses from the teenager.

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Saka himself missed the best chance of the opening half when he fired wide of Ondrej Kolar’s goal.

He earned a free-kick early in the second half which saw Willian hit the post, while Saka than skied a cross too high and too far after being played in by an incisive through-ball from Alexandre Lacazette.

But the responsibility levelled at the youngster to make the difference in such situations is part of the problem for Arteta, with too many of Saka’s fellow forward players failing to live up to expectations.

Willian and Lacazette were both less effective than their much younger team-mate during that opening half, while midway through the second period it was the French forward’s turn to miss a gilt-edged chance.

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On that occasion Lacazette crashed his shot against the woodwork when one-on-one with the keeper, while moments later he tried in vain to turn home another Saka cross.

Aubameyang was not on the pitch at that point following Arteta’s decision to bench his captain – which again speaks volumes given that the manager claimed before the game he had picked a team to get the tie off to the best possible start.

And when the gaffer looked to make an attacking change with just under 20 minutes to go, it was another youngster he turned to first, with the lesser-spotted Gabriel Martinelli coming on in place of Willian.

Saturday’s Premier League defeat to Liverpool was the first time this season Arteta had started Arsenal’s record signing Pepe in tandem with Aubameyang and Lacazette in attack – a front line worth a combined £175million in transfer fees.

It was an experiment that was not repeated at the Emirates on Thursday – but Aubameyang and Pepe did eventually replacie Saka and Lacazette with just over 10 minutes to go.

Immediately there was more intensity about the Arsenal attack, with Aubameyang firing wide while Martinelli lifted a shot just over the bar.

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Eventually it seemed Arteta’s substitutions had won the game for Arsenal, with Aubameyang’s through-ball finding Pepe, who broke the deadlock with four minutes remaining.

But Holes scored late on to put the tie on a knife-edge ahead of next week’s second leg in Prague.

And it will have left fans wondering how Arteta can get the best out of his attacking talents, both young and experienced.

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