A year ago, Arsenal suffered a devastating and embarrassing Round of 32 exit in the Europa League at the hands of a late Olympiacos goal. One year and one game later, Arsenal and Bukayo Saka, in particular, has represented the improvement under Mikel Arteta.
3-2 down on aggregate to Benfica, Arsenal needed two second-half goals to progress. A year ago, this would have been mission impossible. Even today, it seemed a task too steep.
Yet, an Arsenal side slowly transitioning under Arteta proved us all wrong through a performance from a player who embodies everything Arteta is attempting to instil in his Arsenal side. And, who else would it be to drag the Gunners from the jaws of defeat?
Saka: The Embodiment Arsenal Transition
A Performance of Leadership and Character from Arsenal and Saka
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang will receive deserved plaudits for the finish to secure his side’s progression, but it was once again a performance built on the foundation of academy graduate Saka.
His creativity and goal involvement is expected at this point from a talented 20-year-old. Yet, the character he showed to lift his head, alongside his teammates, is something you’d expect from a veteran.
As Benfica scored, Saka’s head did not fall. Instead, it rose to guide the Gunners to victory. And that is the hallmark of a world-class player.
Not to place too much pressure on the 19-year-old, but it is a similar character that the great Steven Gerrard often showed at Liverpool to grab the game by the scruff of the neck to defy the odds.
And, like Gerrard, Arsenal will hope Saka shows similar loyalty to that of Gerrard to Liverpool. He never went chasing for trophies, stayed true to the process, and went down as a legend. Saka has all the traits to become a player to remember in an era to forget in Arsenal history.
Europa League Win a Must for Arsenal
Fantastic comebacks soon become nothing but what-ifs should the team fail to go onto glory. Liverpool’s comeback against Borussia Dortmund in 2016 soon became meaningless when they suffered defeat to Sevilla in the Europa League final.
Arsenal, unlike Liverpool in 2016, must make the game against Benfica meaningful. They must ensure that it is a game they look back on as a turning point. On so many occasions, Arteta’s Arsenal have taken strides towards progression before taking two steps back.
This time must be different; it must be a permanent turning point in Arsenal’s character- a stepping stone towards Europa League glory. The Premier League’s European places are as competitive as ever this season, meaning Arsenal’s best route into the Champions League is through the Europa League.
They showed their character to fight against Benfica. Now, they must use that result as a foundation for permanent improvement.
Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Man
Many were rightfully aiming criticism towards Aubameyang at the start of the season as the goals became non-existent. Yet, when needed most, all top players step up.
And, like the world-class forward we all know Aubameyang to be, he stepped up when his side needed him most. His miss against Olympiacos last season saw Arsenal exit in miserable fashion. Similar misses in the first-leg against Benfica could have defined the tie, but Aubameyang didn’t let them.
Instead, he headed home the winning goal in the dying embers of the game. Arsenal were as good as gone; many, including some of their own fans, had written them off. After all, they had yet to be given evidence as to why they should believe in the possibility of a comeback.
But, 90 minutes later, and Arsenal’s character cannot be questioned. For the first time in years, despite how the Premier League table may look, progression is slowly underway at the Emirates- led by the likes of Saka and Aubameyang.
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