There’s a traditional theory in golf that the youngest players are the best putters. It’s not that they are more composed, or even more effective. But that their ambition to putt is at its peak.
They attack the pin from distances others would not consider, on treacherous greens where others would not dare. For they are not haunted by the misses that lost them a major, left them short of a cut, cost them thousands upon thousands of pounds in prize money or lost career-saving ranking points. All they know is all they have ever cared about. The objective: getting the ball in the hole.
As Saka takes the ball into the opposition box, his only option seems to be a cross to one of two teammates. Instead, he whips the ball over Edouard Mendy, pinging the far post before rippling the net. Whether he meant it or not, it was as audacious to try it (and pull it off) as it was to claim he did with resolute confidence. “I saw him off his line so I thought I could chip him,” Saka told the BBC at the end of the match. Really, Bukayo? “Yeah!”
Audacity is something that has been missing at the Emirates. An audacity of belief and resolve of a club whose iteration within the life-cycle of Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and Emile Smith Rowe, all turning in accomplished performances, has been one of success and the kind of football that nourished the soul when the former was lacking. This season both have been absent.
Anything other than a win against Chelsea and Arsenal would have equalled an eight-game winless run between November 1992 and January 1993. They have been among the league’s lowest shooters, a nugget that speaks of a wider malaise at the club that will take more than this result to overcome. Still, Saturday’s seven shots on target, the most in their 15 games this campaign, is a good place to start.
Before Tuesday’s defeat to Manchester City in the Carabao Cup quarter-final, Mikel Arteta spoke of a lot of “suffering” and “hurting” and the need to find individuals within his squad who were up for a battle that may or may not involve relegation. Modern football’s peculiarity is that identifying those with the desire to scrap is more challenging when you have recruited seasoned personnel on high-bracket wages for high profile engagements. Such is the stark difference between the expectation at the start of the season and the stark realities now, you could almost forgive the club for being ill-equipped for the situation at hand. No one buys suede shoes thinking they’re going to spend their time wading through mud.
As it happens, solutions have now presented themselves among the upstarts, unburdened by the weight of this season’s woes, making the difference against a star-studded Chelsea line-up. One which, amid all the knee-jerk Lampard revisionism – not all of it unmerited – walked their Champions League group and could have gone second, within three points of Liverpool, had this match gone their way.
Smith Rowe, who had played just 97 minutes of league football for The Gunners before this 65-minute appearance in only his second league start, was progressive in everything he did. Of his 22 completed passes, 18 were in the opposition passes and, combined with a cross, was judged as having 22 “good” moments of both by Opta. Whether or not your interpretation of “good” tallies with theirs, the eyes will have noticed a kid unperturbed at being thrown into a scenario he has no experience of but trusting his appreciation of the game’s fundamentals of going towards the goal.
This was just as pronounced in Martinelli’s work, whose goal threat is underpinned by a similar directness. Don’t let his “Brazilian-ness” fool you: there aren’t many 19-year-old strikers who put their bodies on the line like he does. Along with stretching play, his physicality accounted for as many tackles won (three) as N’Golo Kante, while being the host’s furthest player forward.
It is Saka, Arteta’s fourth most-used outfield player this season, who best encapsulates the value and valour of youth. Not simply because he knows not of title-chasing days, Champions League football, or that he is unspoilt by highs to have short shrift for the lows. But because he has become a totem at the club and affirmation that, beyond stalwarts of testimonial vintage, those who most “get” a club are its youth.
Theirs is an ingrained affection that runs deep and spreads wide, into their families and friends who become as one with clubs as they do. Saka joined Arsenal when he was just seven, and it was his father, a Newcastle fan, who would take him to sessions at Hale End throughout his formative days. He would regularly walk past a picture of Jack Wilshere and dream of one day becoming the next product on the conveyor belt to make it to first-team honours.
It was also here he realised how few reach the end of this line. The majority who might have been stars of their year groups remain just that, stagnating and moving on. Others stop entirely. Age-group football gives players an understanding of how fickle the real world is long before the rest of us.
That cut-throat nature is reinforced early, even if many cast it from their minds for a more positive outlook. Saka used it to drive him. As he wrote on the Arsenal website in July: “The coaches would always say, ‘Look around the dressing room, only maybe one or possibly two of you will make it to the first team one day.’ We would look at each other and wonder who it would be.”
Well, it would turn out to be him. Along with Smith Rowe and those on the bench against Chelsea such as Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Joe Willock, Eddie Nketiah and Reiss Nelson who came through the same system. Like other successful graduates, they carry a sense of duty to take the club forward. A responsibility to the shirt and broader community that, as Arsenal’s recent dealings have shown, money cannot buy.
This result gives Arteta reason put more of his faith in youth in the immediate weeks ahead. It’s not for nothing that the knock-on effect for this match at least was to coax better displays out of Alexandre Lacazette, Hector Bellerin, Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny. Four players who feature high on a list of those supporters would happily carry elsewhere.
These kids will not bring back the glory days alone, just as it cannot solely be on them to lift the club out of the doldrums after just a fifth win out of 15, still six points from the bottom three. But they can bring back attacking verve, a degree of hope, a smattering of fun and perhaps even a whiff of that old-school Va Va Voom. A reminder of what it was to be Arsenal.