Will Arsenal's dependence on Bukayo Saka cost them the Europa League?
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Young English star Bukayo Saka emerged as one of the big Premier League surprises last season, breaking into the Arsenal team and making the left-back position his own. This season, he's gone from strength to strength despite Arsenal's torrid campaign. The Gunners haven't troubled the Champions League places all season, currently in ninth. With four games to go, any hope of finishing in a European place is a distant memory. Their entire season hangs on success in the Europa League, which would earn them a seat at the 2021/22 Champions League table. Tonight, they host Villarreal in the second leg of their Europa League semi-final. Mikel Arteta's side trail 2-1 and their reliance on the English youngster may cost them a place in the final.
While Arsenal's struggles over the last five years were clear for all to see, this season plumbed new depths. Last year's eighth place finish was the furthest from the title they've been at season's end since 1994/95's catastrophic campaign left them twelfth. At best, they look set to finish ninth this time around.
Fans hoped Arteta would push the Gunners following 2019/20's season-ending surge when they lifted the FA Cup. Instead, the squad lost momentum. Several big names struggled to perform regularly with talisman Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang the most notable. The Gabonese's total stands at a meagre 15 goals in all competitions, a huge drop off from the 29 and 31 he netted in the previous two sessions. Yet, they say that when any door closes, another opens. The challenge existed for Arteta's batch of promising youngsters to pick up the Gunners' standard and charge forward. Saka, alongside fellow midfielder Emile Smith-Rowe, answered the challenge.
A prototypical modern fullback last term, Saka was all about getting forward whenever possible. It should have come as no surprise to see him featuring as a winger in '20/21 when, to be fair, he's played in numerous positions across the pitch as required. The 19-year-old did well in the Premiership but his biggest impact came in the Europa League where he has scored twice and assisted five times in eight games.
In the semi-final first leg against former manager Unai Emery, who also is known to thrive in this competition, Arsenal were clearly second best. Still, a moment of quality from Saka kept them in the tie. He won the penalty Nicolas Pepe dispatched to close the gap to one for tonight's crunch second game. When Saka receives the ball, he is brave and prepared to take on multiple players as he did for the penalty at El Madrigal.
Arsenal retain hope that their marquee forwards will be fit and available for the full 90. Alexandre Lacazette remains a question mark but Aubameyang will definitely be involved after making his return from injury in Spain. If either play, it's imperative they step up. Saka and Smith-Rowe were game but unable to shoulder the burden in the first leg. The summer transfer window beckons with the promise of a major roster overhaul. While veterans such as Aubameyang and Lacazette may move on, youngsters such as Saka and Smith-Rowe will remain, expected to define the new Gunners generation. Summer is still over the horizon, though. This week is all about reaching the Europa League final and the stars must come out. If they fail to deliver, it will unfairly be left to the youngsters to lead Arsenal onto Gdansk and failure can wither promise on the vine.