LONDON, ENGLAND — They came, they saw, and they kicked him but still, Bukayo Saka saved the day.
Sevilla identified the England international as Arsenal’s principal threat on Wednesday and went about stopping him the only way they could — fouling him five times during the opening 35 minutes — yet Saka ended the evening with a goal and an assist in a 2-0 win at the Emirates.
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Treatment from referees has been a hot topic in north London over recent days after Arsenal voiced their anger at Premier League officiating through both Mikel Arteta and a formal club statement but Saka proved here the most powerful response of all can be delivered on the pitch.
“There’s contact in football and obviously for the wingers who want to take people on this is going to happen,” said Arteta. “At the end, he wasn’t comfortable to carry on, hopefully, it’s not too much but I’m really pleased with his performance.
“I think he’s getting used to it! I don’t think that’s going to change, especially with the way he plays and the way he attracts players so he better get used to it.”
He is no stranger to rough-housing from opponents. It is to Saka’s credit that he rarely reacts, but Jorginho had to calm his teammate down early on here as irritation bubbled to the surface with Nemanja Gudelj and Kike Salas taking turns to chop him down.
Some players would retreat in such circumstances but Saka embraced the responsibility of driving Arsenal forward almost from the moment he broke into the first team and so it proved again, latching onto Jorginho’s superb through-ball to square a cross for Leandro Trossard to sidefoot home after 29 minutes.
Saka’s intuitive understanding of those around him only multiplies the threat his individual talent creates; all five of Trossard’s goals this season have been assisted by Arsenal’s No. 7.
Sevilla essentially sat in their own half waiting to be beaten, failing to register a shot of any description until the seventh minute of added time but their race was run long before, Saka adding Arsenal’s second on 64 minutes with an assurance it would be easy to take for granted.
Saka collected Gabriel Martinelli’s through ball and surged into the box before turning Adrià Pedrosa and slotting a low finish past goalkeeper Marko Dmitrovic.
Martinelli is worthy of special mention too, terrorising Juanlu on the opposite flank with that blend of pace, trickery, and high-press that makes him such a menace — how Arteta must continue to rue the inability to field his first-choice front three of Saka, Martinelli, and Gabriel Jesus with the latter the latest absentee due to a hamstring problem.
“You look at Gabi Jesus, I think he has only played one Premier League game for us. He played three games in the Champions League for us and scored four goals,” Arteta said. It is what it is but having Leo here, he is so reliable and gives you something very different to Eddie [Nketiah] and him. He is a joy to have and I am really happy with them.”
Injuries are never far from Arteta’s mind these days — Takehiro Tomiyasu went off at half-time feeling “discomfort” — and Saka raised fears of a fresh problem as he limped off with five minutes remaining, appearing to indicate an issue with the back of his left leg, possibly his ankle after landing awkwardly in jumping for a header.
He will be assessed in the coming days but there will be encouragement taken from the fact he left the pitch unaided, taking in the applause as he walked around the half Arsenal were attacking before taking a seat on the substitutes’ bench rather than heading straight down the tunnel.
“It was just a kick and I was told by the physios on the radio he wasn’t happy to continue,” said Arteta. “So he will have some discomfort but hopefully I am going to assume he will be OK.” England boss Gareth Southgate, in attendance at the Emirates, will await updates with equal impatience.
Defeat in Lens on matchday two threatened to make Arsenal’s Group B UEFA Champions League campaign more complicated than it ever looked on paper but after a dominant display exhibiting an impressive amount of control, now they know a draw against Lens next time out will be enough to seal qualification with a game to spare, allowing attentions to shift to the title race.
A night off for Saka on matchday six wouldn’t go amiss either.