Arsenal’s over-reliance on Bukayo Saka exposed in Lens loss

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Lens, France — Lens brought Arsenal’s reliance on Bucayo Saka into sharp focus on Tuesday. The Gunners were beaten 2-1 at the Stade Bollert-Delilis and the fault lines in their display were drawn wide due to Sakka’s involvement, setting up the opening goal for Gabriel Jesus before going off injured in the 34th minute shortly after Lens equalised.

They never looked the same consistent threat without him, which is perhaps why Mikel Arteta risked starting the 22-year-old in France, and after Elie Wahy fired home Lens’ second goal on 69 minutes, Arsenal rallied but without the finesse or quality the England international so often delivers.

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Saka has become one of the best wings in Europe. It was brilliant business from Arsenal to tie him down to a new four-year deal in May and if he has improved a bit since then, he has become the first player in Europe’s top five leagues to register five goals and five assists in all competitions this season.

Saka accepted the responsibilities assigned to him. Sources have told ESPN he is fit and feeling well in training ahead of the Champions League Group B clash despite limping off for the second game in a row at Bournemouth on Saturday. He was also sent off against Tottenham the week before after picking up a leg kick, and a stamp on his foot at Bournemouth brought his participation to a premature end.

Arteta cannot be accused of complacency, but questions should be asked about Saka starting here given his recent fitness issues and the biggest game of the upcoming season this weekend when Arsenal host Premier League champions Manchester City.

So did he have any regrets about playing with him?

“No, it was a knock that he had the other day,” replied Arteta. “He was perfectly fine. It was an action, a backheel, that could have caused such an injury. Let’s see the magnitude of it. He tried to backheel a ball in the first half and he felt something. It was something muscular. He was uncomfortable. And we had to take him away.

“We don’t know any more than that. Obviously, it was big enough to not let him continue the game and that’s obviously a concern for us. I have no idea, [about the weekend]”I don’t know,” added Arteta.

The only game Saka has not started so far this campaign was last week’s EFL Cup third round win over Brentford. Before Tuesday, in eight Premier League and Champions League games, Saka had played 683 minutes out of a possible 720. He has started 87 consecutive Premier League games.

Arteta claimed last week that Saka “now has enough experience to know when he’s ready to help the team and when he’s not” but added that “we have to protect him… and we have to know when the right time” is to give him that rest. to give.”

Their time seems off. Saka is a character who wants to play every game — and that’s obviously to his credit — but Arsenal have spent heavily this summer building a squad capable of competing on multiple fronts and yet without Saka in the team the drop-off is still stark.

This is nothing new and remains a contrast with the City. Saka played 3,131 Premier League minutes last season. City’s most used player in the division was defensive midfielder Rodri (2,830 minutes) and in attack, there was much more rotation with Bernardo Silva registering 2,119 minutes, Jack Grealish 2,063 and Riyad Mahrez 2,063. And this is of course going hand in hand with a successful Champions League campaign.

Arsenal are back in Europe’s premier club competition for the first time in six years and both competitions will have to fend off better claims. Saka’s teammates also need to step up.

In his 34 minutes here, Saka touched the ball 27 times, completing 16 passes. Leandro Trossard and Kai Havertz both registered 33 touches despite playing 70 minutes, contesting 18 and 17 passes respectively. The Gunners needed more.

Controversy was further fueled by Arteta’s decision to replace Aaron Ramsdale with David Raya after Lens’ equaliser. Jesus showed a clinical touch to collect Saka’s pass and put Arsenal in front but the moment was canceled out by a poor pass that undermined the argument that Raya’s distribution could have had a transformative effect.

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Stepping out alongside his centre-back to aim a pass to Takehiro Tomiyasu, Raya’s raking ball was cut out by forward Devar Machado and suddenly the lens could have broken. Their pace in transition had been impressive all evening but it was a problem for Raya to produce and when Machado found Wahee, he laid the ball off to Adrian Thomason, who curled a superb effort into the far corner.

Arsenal never really regained control. Saka departed, Fabio Vieira came on and although they mustered a few dangerous moments — Tomiyasu Brees forced a great save from Sambar when he met Martin Odegaard’s 66th-minute corner — Lens grew in confidence and Wahhi scored 21 minutes from time. Mark the home side’s first Champions League game in 21 years with a famous win.

“In a few moments we calmed the crowd down but after we gave them life,” Arteta said. “Those were the two situations where we conceded goals. Big teams punish you. We didn’t punish them and that was the difference in the game. We learned a big lesson today.”

It’s only Arsenal’s first defeat of the season and while it makes it difficult to top the group, it’s still a goal firmly in their possession after just two matchdays.

But they’ll probably need Saka to get there. As is the case with almost every sport these days.



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