WATFORD, England — Perhaps it should not be a surprise that the man nicknamed “Little Chilli” is handling the heat. Bukayo Saka scored one and made another as Arsenal claimed a 3-2 win at Watford on Sunday to take another vital step forward in their pursuit of Champions League qualification.
The Premier League’s top-four race is intensifying with each passing week, yet Saka and Martin Odegaard embodied a freedom of expression that belied the idea that the Gunners are under pressure to deliver at the business end of the season.
Sources have told ESPN that senior figures at Arsenal believe the club is ahead of schedule under Mikel Arteta and had not expected a serious push for Champions League football until next year.
And although it should be remembered Watford are struggling at the wrong end of the table and this was their eighth straight home defeat, Arsenal displayed a desire to seize this unexpected opportunity, reveling in the possibility of returning to Europe’s elite competition for the first time in five years.
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There was a joy to their play from the outset and a superb opening goal came in just the fifth minute. Odegaard pirouetted majestically to find Saka on the right before the England international had the presence of mind to cut the ball back for a return pass in the box, which allowed Odegaard to slide a low finish past helpless Watford goalkeeper Ben Foster.
Cucho Hernandez’s brilliant 11th-minute bicycle kick drew the hosts level and briefly threatened an upset, only for Saka to underline that his palpable talent is augmented by a fine work ethic. When Watford midfielder Tom Cleverley dallied in possession, Saka won the ball, then exchanged passes with Alexandre Lacazette before slotting a high finish in a flash.
The aforementioned Little Chilli nickname was given to him by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who was impressed by Saka’s efficiency in a shooting drill, and this clinical finish showed why he is firmly part of Arsenal’s present and future, especially with a previous source of goals, Aubameyang, having left for Barcelona.
Saka was also instrumental in Arsenal’s third, although Arteta could claim some sort of assist too having immediately handed the out-of-play ball to Saka for a quick throw-in, seven minutes after half-time. Cedric Soares was released down the right and his cross from him was helped on through another sumptuous Odegaard touch before Lacazette teed up Gabriel Martinelli.
Moussa Sissoko scored for Watford three minutes from full-time to set up a grandstand finish but Arsenal held on and, in truth, a draw would have been something of a travesty given the football played by the visitors.
There was a time when Emile Smith Rowe’s absence — 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 link-up with Odegaard.
Between them, the combination pair have combined for the most frequent of completed passes in the final third by Arsenal players during league games this season: Saka has found Odegaard on 78 occasions; the next best combination is Odegaard to Saka with 68.
The time Arsenal have had to work without European football — and in their midseason break to Dubai — is paying off. After this, their fourth straight league win, their manager cited reasons for the development of the players who inspired it.
“[Saka and Odegaard] trust each other better,” Arteta said. “They understand when to do what in relation to what the opponent is doing so this is good. The more they play together, the better they will understand, it is simple.”
The ability of Saka and Odegaard to impact matches is a critical asset for a team still lacking a potent No. 9; Lacazette ended this game with two more assists, but lacked conviction in the sights of goal he had. However, it will not matter too much if the dynamic attacks continue and those around him continue to step up.
Saka has 13 goal contributions in the league this season, the most of any player under the age of 21 in Europe’s top five leagues bar Bayer Leverkusen’s Florian Wirtz.
Those numbers are all the more remarkable, given the difficulties that overshadowed his start to the campaign, when the 20-year-old dealt with the aftermath of suffering racist online abuse as one of three Black players to miss penalties in England’s Euro 2020 final shootout defeat Italy.
Saka was subsequently applauded as he stepped back into domestic football, and Arteta has seen him grow from all he endured to become an even better player, who can go on to achieve great things.
“Bukayo had an experience in the summer that not a lot of players are going to ever have and I think it was great for his career because the football world showed how much they liked him and how much they respect him,” Arteta said.
“I don’t think you get much more than that in football apart from winning trophies. I think that it was a big boost for him to realize in difficult moments, these people are really going to give him support and the club did exactly the same as his teammates.
“Then it is about leaving him that space. At his age, what he is already doing 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 needs to continue to behave and live the way he is doing, nothing else.”
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.