Undoubtedly, Mikel Arteta has made mistakes this season, but is his most costly not utilising the versatility of Bukayo Saka during Kieran Tierney’s absence?
When the Spaniard first arrived at the club, it was a familiar sight seeing Saka maraud up and down the left-hand side of Arsenal’s attack, often overlapping his winger to get to the byline and find a teammate with a cut-back.
This tactic served Arteta well and provided balance to the team when the Gunners had injuries to key players, but up until recently he’s been reluctant to use it.
Granit Xhaka’s role was pivotal to the early success, as the Swiss International would vacate the space left by the youngster which in turn gave him the license to express himself further up the pitch.
As a result, the 19-year-old produced some of his finest displays at left-back and although his long-term future looks to be at right-wing, the unfortunate timing on Tierney’s injury suggested Arteta would revert back to it heading into the most crucial games under his reign.
However, in the seven fixtures without a natural left-back Arteta decided to opt with Xhaka in that position, which sparked debate over whether he is learning from his mistakes quickly enough?
By moving the 28-year-old out of the midfield, it made Thomas Partey’s role significantly harder, as he was often tasked with holding down the centre of the pitch by himself. It also meant that the inconsistent Dani Ceballos was given more minutes, despite it being all but confirmed that he will be returning to Real Madrid next season.
Not only this, but Arsenal’s threat down the left was easily nullified due to Xhaka’s inability to produce consistent overlapping runs, without exposing himself in defence. The alternative seemed to be the more obvious choice, with Saka dropping into the role which he has experience playing in before, while Nicolas Pepe takes his spot on the right and Xhaka keeps his place at the heart of the midfield.
Saka’s display against West Brom suggested that would have been the more viable option, as the Englishman picked up another assist along with the man of the match award in Arsenal’s 3-1 victory over West Brom.
One attribute that stood out was his ability to time his run and get in behind the Baggies defence which ultimately led to the opening goal.
After some clever link-up with Willian, he was able to find Emile Smith Rowe just outside the six-yard box to volley home the opener, and put Arsenal in a commanding lead. The goal epitomised everything which they had been lacking in recent weeks, as his willingness to run in behind added variety to the build-up, and created space for the attackers to operate in.
The thought process behind the decision to keep Saka in the front line could have been down to concerns whether he would still be able to impact the game in an attacking sense from defence. However, in the first-half he received four passes inside the opposition penalty area, which is the most he’s received in one half this season.
He continued to cause havoc going forward and nearly put the game out of sight following Pepe’s wonder strike, when Willian found him again just inside the area. With little options in the middle, Saka attempted to squeeze his effort past Sam Johnstone at his near post, but the shot-stopper was equal to it.
Halfway through the second-half, Smith Rowe’s departure meant Saka was pushed up into attacking midfield to once again show his versatility, in which he didn’t disappoint. Willian capped of a fine performance with his first goal for the Gunners having found the top corner with a trademark free-kick two minutes from time.
But Arsenal had done the damage in the opening 60 minutes and the teenagers display could have Arteta wondering whether he should have adopted this option sooner. There’s no doubt that he is still learning his trade as a manager, but the club are in no position for him react slowly to certain situations.
Perhaps we would have been in the Europa League final if he had done sooner, as although Tierney started the game, that decision was forced upon him by Xhaka’s injury in the warm-up.
The margins are fine, as we would have then been 90 minutes away from playing Champions League football for the first time in five years, instead they find themselves with three more games in the league to play for with little significance.
Ultimately, Arsenal have a sense of passivity coming from them at the moment, which stems from the owners right down to the players on the pitch. Every decision made is reactive and not proactive, hence why they’ve endured one of their worst seasons in recent history.
Arteta has tried to break this mould at times, however in the process these decisions have not only come at the detriment to the team but highlighted his inexperience. In both legs of the semi-final against Villarreal, he deployed systems which they had never tried before, resulting in confusion amongst the players and two lifeless displays.
Like any young coach in their first major role, it was never going to be smooth sailing but the question remains whether he can learn from his mistakes quickly enough to get Arsenal back to competing amongst the top clubs in Europe again.
I’m a 20 year-old Arsenal fanatic and aspiring Sports Journalist, who will be studying how to write about the Beautiful Game at Solent University from September in an attempt to make my dream into a reality.
Since the age of 8 I have played academy football, but unfortunately it didn’t quite work out – therefore I decided to pursue the next best career for me.
I am aiming to write honest and interesting articles about the club I love, and to share my opinion (one from the younger generation of Arsenal supporters) with as many other fans as possible!