It was all going swimmingly. Sure, Arsenal hadn’t set the world alight in the opening exchanges at Lens, but a wonderful Gabriel Jesus finish meant they secured what appeared a very important opening goal.
However, that was when Tuesday night peaked for Mikel Arteta’s side.
The hosts restored parity 11 minutes later when Adrien Thomasson made amends for his earlier error by scoring a lovely leveller, and Arsenal’s outing took a turn for the worst when an apparent backheel forced Bukayo Saka into a limp.
After enduring a couple of awkward minutes hobbling around with a live ball, Saka eventually dropped to the surface and subsequently walked straight down the tunnel following his forced 34th-minute withdrawal.
A Saka hobble and exit is a sequence Arsenal supporters have worryingly become familiar with in recent weeks, and it’s pretty remarkable that the winger has been as productive as he’s been (ten G/A in ten games) at the start of 2023/24. Saka’s been forced off during his last three outings.
Withdrawing his star wide-man is an act Arteta isn’t comfortable with, and Lens’ second-half resurgence showed why.
Bukayo Saka’s latest injury must be a wake-up call for Mikel Arteta
It’s the Arsenal manager’s relentless urge to utilise his superstar that has likely led to Saka’s injury issues at the start of the new season. Arteta has spoken previously about the likes of Saka needing to match the world’s best by playing “every three days”, and the Spaniard has very rarely offered his Iron Man any respite since taking charge.
When he turned 21 on September 5 2022, Saka had played more minutes than any other under-21 in Europe’s top five leagues (3,505) since the start of the previous season (2021/22). He then racked up a whopping 3,744 minutes across three competitions for the Gunners last season, with Saka breaking a 26-year Premier League appearance record against Fulham in August by starting his 83rd consecutive game.
Now, there’s no doubt that Saka’s availability has helped him garner superstar status and I don’t believe the winger should’ve been rested for a tough Champions League fixture away from home (as was the case on Tuesday). My issue regarding this situation is that Saka entered the trip to Lens amid a backdrop of knocks.
He was forced off in the second half of Arsenal’s Premier League outings against Tottenham and Bournemouth, and while Arteta said Saka was raring to go for Tuesday’s contest, the hamstring injury he suffered has been rendered an inevitability by his overuse.
Now, who knows, perhaps Saka’s issue isn’t anything to worry about, but the winger’s frequent withdrawals shouldn’t be happening to a player so young. The kid’s 21! We know how good he is, and his availability is surely envied by his contemporaries, especially given how robustly he’s treated by defenders, but he’s not invincible. Arteta and the player himself have got to be smarter. A game here and there might have to be sacrificed for the best interests of Saka’s career.
We’ve seen how injuries to precocious young English stars, including Michael Owen and Dele Alli, hampered their respective careers after they were used so relentlessly during their formative years.
It’s time for the Arsenal boss to protect the club’s most valuable asset, especially in a season so pivotal. Odd transfer prioritisation in the summer means Arteta isn’t blessed with an option anywhere near Saka’s equal down the right, but the Spaniard has got to consider alternatives and strike the right balance if, at any point this season, Saka is sidelined.
His decision to bring on Fabio Vieira on Tuesday was a curious one given Arsenal’s profiles in attack. Until Reiss Nelson’s introduction after Lens took the lead, the Gunners were exclusively left with ball-to-feet players that carried little penetrative threat in behind. The balance was off, and Lens were emboldened; they pressed that little bit fiercer, man-marked that little bit tighter and were backed by a higher defensive line.
Saka’s absence completely compromised Arsenal’s attacking dynamics, and a pretty woeful second-half showing ensued. Their struggles perhaps vindicated Arteta’s decision to start his battered and bruised winger, but the Spaniard ultimately paid the price and Saka’s status for Manchester City’s visit is now unclear.
However, even if the 21-year-old has avoided a major issue, or any problem at all, Saka’s recent hobbles must serve as a wake-up call for Mikel Arteta. He must do a better job of protecting his vulnerable superstar.