Arsenal led by Bukayo Saka-Martin Odegaard combination to boost top four hopefuls with win at Watford

WATFORD, England – It should come as no surprise that the man nicknamed “Little Chilli” is handling the heat. Bukayo Saka scored one and made another as Arsenal cruised to a 3-2 victory at Watford on Sunday to take another vital step forward in their quest for Champions League qualification.

The race for the Premier League’s top four intensifies with each passing week, but Saka and Martin Odegaard epitomized a freedom of expression that belied the notion that the Gunners are under pressure to deliver at the end of the season.

Sources have told ESPN that senior Arsenal officials believe the club are ahead of schedule under Mikel Arteta and do not expect a serious push for Champions League football until next year.

And while it should not be forgotten that Watford are struggling on the wrong end of the table and this was their eighth successive home defeat, Arsenal have displayed a desire to seize this unexpected opportunity, reveling in the possibility of return to Europe’s elite competition for the first time in five years.

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There was joy in their game from the start and a superb opening goal came only in the fifth minute. Odegaard twirled majestically to find Saka on the right before the England international had the presence of mind to clip the ball for a return pass into the box which allowed Odegaard to slip a low finish past the helpless Watford goalkeeper Ben Foster.

Cucho Hernandez’s brilliant bicycle kick in the 11th minute drew the hosts level and briefly threatened to upset, only for Saka to point out that his palpable talent is augmented by a fine work ethic. When Watford midfielder Tom Cleverley gained possession, Saka won the ball and then exchanged passes with Alexandre Lacazette before landing a high finish in a flash.

The aforementioned Little Chilli nickname was given to him by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who was impressed with Saka’s efficiency in a shooting drill, and this clinical finish showed why he is firmly in the present and the future. of Arsenal, especially with a previous source of goals, Aubameyang, left for Barcelona.

Saka was also instrumental in Arsenal’s third goal, although Arteta could also claim some sort of assist after immediately handing the ball offside to Saka for a quick throw-in seven minutes after half-time. time. Cedric Soares was released on the right and his cross was helped by another sumptuous touch from Odegaard before Lacazette attacked Gabriel Martinelli.

Moussa Sissoko scored for Watford three minutes from full time to set up a stand finish, but Arsenal held on and, in truth, a draw would have been something of a travesty given the football the visitors were playing.

There was a time when the absence of Emile Smith Rowe – explained here by a positive COVID-19 test – made Saka look somewhat isolated given the understanding the two Hale End academy graduates possess, but there are signs that he is beginning to display the same connection to Odegaard.

Between them, the pair have combined for the most frequent combination of passes completed in the final third by Arsenal players in league games this season: Saka has found Odegaard 78 times; the next best combination is Odegaard in Saka with 68.

The time Arsenal have had to work without European football – and during their mid-season break in Dubai – is paying off. After that, their fourth straight league win, their manager cited player development reasons that inspired him.

“[Saka and Odegaard] trust yourself better,” Arteta said. “They understand when to do what versus what the opponent is doing, so that’s good. The more they play together, the better they will understand, it’s simple.”

Saka and Odegaard’s ability to impact games is a vital asset for a side still lacking a powerful No.9; Lacazette finished that game with two more assists, but lacked conviction in the sights of the goal he had. However, that won’t matter too much if the dynamic attacks continue and those around him continue to escalate.

Saka has 13 league goals this season, the most of any player under 21 in Europe’s top five leagues, apart from Bayer Leverkusen’s Florian Wirtz.

These figures are all the more remarkable, given the difficulties that overshadowed his start to the campaign, when the 20-year-old faced the aftermath of racist abuse online as one of three black players to miss. the penalty shootout during the Euro 2020 final shootout in England. loss to Italy.

Saka was then applauded as he returned to domestic football, and Arteta watched him grow after all he endured to become an even better player who can go on to achieve great things.

“Bukayo had an experience this summer that not many players will have and I think it was great for his career because the world of football showed how much they love him and how much they respect him,” Arteta said. .

“I don’t think you get much more than that in football other than winning trophies. I think that was a big boost for him to achieve in difficult times, these people are really going to be supportive and the club did exactly the same as his teammates.

“Then it’s about giving him that space. At his age, what he already does is phenomenal and he needs that room. Don’t read too much, do what you do. Football is his priority in life and you can see that every day in training. He has to keep behaving and living the way he does, nothing else.”

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