Led by Bukayo Saka, Arsenal's youngsters can save Arsenal's season, and Mikel Arteta's job
Arsenal needed a win against Chelsea and they got one, courtesy of a 3-1 triumph on home turf. But it was a new-look side for Mikel Arteta with Emile Smith Rowe coming into the No. 10 position and being flanked by Gabriel Martinelli and the sensational Bukayo Saka. A template has been laid down for the rest of the season, writes Tom Adams: play the kids.
Bukayo Saka of Arsenal celebrates with teammates Emile Smith Rowe, Alexandre Lacazette, and Hector Bellerin after scoring his team's third goal during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Chelsea
Mikel Arteta has been failed at almost every turn by a bunch of overpaid and undermotivated senior players this season. But the good news is that his salvation can instead be delivered by the group of exciting young talents who were responsible for Arsenal’s best performance and result of the season in their 3-1 win over Chelsea. There can be no going back now.
It has been a historically pathetic season from Arsenal but the road which will navigate them away from the humiliation of a relegation battle was made clear on Boxing Day. Bukayo Saka was sensational, whether he meant his looped finish over Edouard Mendy or not, and after spending much of the season being the only bright spot in a succession of dreary, dismal defeats, instead enjoyed showcasing what he can do at the heart of an accomplished, intelligent, winning XI.
His talent is immense and securing him to a new contract in July could be one of the more consequential events of 2020 for Arsenal, even in a year which saw them win the FA Cup amid a global pandemic. If the present seems uncertain - and Arteta can hardly rest too comfortably this evening with a win, however impressively obtained, only lifting Arsenal to 14th place – any future which contains Saka contains hope. This was simply another thrilling exhibition of what he could achieve in football.
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But Saka is not a new factor to consider. And, notably, it was absolutely no coincidence that this match was also the first Premier League appearance of the season for Emile Smith Rowe, the 20-year-old playmaker who assumed the No. 10 role in behind Alexandre Lacazette and who formed the most fluid and dangerous unit Arsenal have deployed this season with Saka and Gabriel Martinelli torturing Chelsea’s defence either side of him.
Arsenal fans had been demanding to see the youngster start for some time now, but it was his substitute appearance in the League Cup defeat to Manchester City in midweek which apparently finally convinced Arteta of his qualities, as he immediately injected some purpose into a poor Arsenal team which lost 4-1. The youngster has had a shoulder problem this season but his elevation to a starting role was still too slow - a mistake that Arteta can not afford to repeat.
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Nothing will ever really be able to adequately explain the fact that Arsenal have spent the season desperately struggling to create chances in open play while simultaneously paying Mesut Ozil £350,000 per week to hold Twitter Q&As and play no football whatsoever. Wherever fault ultimately lies, and that is hard to judge from the outside, it is an extremely costly failure of management from across the club to depreciate a considerable asset so badly.
But Smith Rowe also offers something that Ozil cannot: his six ball recoveries were the highest of any Arsenal player. He also offers something that no other player than Ozil can provide with his ability as a No. 10 and his prompting and probing in those areas gave Arsenal another dimension against Chelsea. As Alex Scott put it on Sky Sports: “Arsenal have been crying out all season for a creative player and he showed he deserved his place."
Emile Smith Rowe of Arsenal and Mateo Kovacic of Chelsea take a knee in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement prior to the Premier League match between Arsenal and Chelsea
Image credit: Getty Images
The extent to which this new-look Arsenal was of Arteta’s design is unknown given that Willian was only ruled out of the match on the day due to concerns over an illness, even if he had returned a negative Covid-19 test result. But it can only be hoped, for Arteta’s own sake, that he has realised that Willian is not the answer for this team. The three-year contract given to the aging Brazilian this summer was a reckless decision by the club which will hurt them financially, and in pure performance terms there is no case for his inclusion when Arteta has such a talented young crop now at his disposal.
This is not to say that none of his underperforming senior players are irredeemable. Granit Xhaka would have been top of many fans’ hitlist after his idiotic red card against Burnley only confirmed suspicions that he is a liability, but he responded brilliantly on his return to the team with a performance of pure purpose and a sensational goal too, sending an unstoppable free-kick past Mendy for 2-0. Hector Bellerin also drastically improved on his recent form.
But ultimately, Arsenal’s salvation this season will not come via the players who have got them into this mess. "We grew up with each other," Saka said after his man of the match performance, "the young players all want to play and have the passion for this club. We want to make the fans happy."
It is a distinctly Wengerian solution. But Project Youth 2020-21 isn’t a strategy to pay for a stadium: it’s the only conceivable strategy to rescue something from this season and keep Mikel Arteta in a job.
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