Arsenal team vs Blackpool: Bukayo Saka set for FA Cup start... and a long Gunners career

james olley
Evening Standard

Midway through an answer about picking the best team to face Blackpool on Saturday, Unai Emery made a declaration that will make teenager Bukayo Saka take note.

A combination of accumulated fatigue, injuries in defence and the fact priorities lie elsewhere means Arsenal will make several changes for the game at Bloomfield Road and it appears likely that 17-year-old Saka is set for only his second start.

It has been quite a rise for the London-born winger, who can play in a variety of attacking positions.

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After making his England Under-17s debut aged just 15 in August 2017, last season he made 26 appearances for the Under-18s and scored eight goals in that level’s Premier League.

This term, Saka advanced to the Under-23s and after a string of substitute appearances, he scored on his debut against Liverpool in September.

A senior debut followed against Vorskla Poltava in November before a first start, at home to FK Qarabag, and more regular involvement in first-team training. And after a League debut against Fulham on Tuesday, Saka will make his FA Cup bow if Emery’s praise is anything to go by.

He told Standard Sport: “I am using different players because of injuries, because of coming out of [several] matches [close together], but it is not a period of rotation, it is a period to take a big performance against each team we play.

“Saka debuted in his last match and it is important for us to give chances to the young players. He was playing because at the moment we haven’t a lot of players who have the possibility to play on the right or left wing and he is growing with good performances.

“It is the beginning, I hope, of a long career here in Arsenal. We have other players the same — Emile [Smith Rowe], [Joe] Willock and [Eddie] Nketiah — and we need to give them chances but also thinking about a good performance.”

Saka said after his outing against Fulham that “through hard work and determination, I managed to get here and I’m not stopping now”. Emery looks set to give him an immediate chance to prove just that.

“He is improving a lot,” said the Spaniard. “He is 17 but training with us and knowing our tactical things with the other players. He is coming with us on a lot of matches.”

The early rounds of the Cup could provide vital opportunities for Saka, Willock (right) and the other youngsters, especially given Emery’s record in the Europa League — having won it between 2014 and 2016 — indicates he will pick stronger sides as that competition progresses. Willock could also be involved tomorrow, although Smith Rowe returned to training only yesterday following a hip problem.

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As is usually the case with Emery, he had done his homework, this time regarding Arsenal’s record in the competition, rattling off the 20 finals, 13 wins and last season’s third-round exit at Nottingham Forest.

Bukayo Saka made his Premier League debut as Arsenal thrashed Fulham (Action Images via Reuters)
Bukayo Saka made his Premier League debut as Arsenal thrashed Fulham (Action Images via Reuters)

Progress will be important in maintaining momentum, and mid-table League One opposition divided by a rift between fans and ownership should offer an inviting chance to reach the fourth round.

Inevitably, Emery will have one eye on the challenges ahead, with West Ham, Chelsea and Manchester City to come in three of their next four League games — a period for which Arsenal’s problems in defence need to ease.

Shkodran Mustafi will not be risked tomorrow as he continues to battle a hamstring problem.

For those who come in to the side, there is an opportunity to prove themselves ready. Saka has youth on his side but there is no time like the present.

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