Champions League: Arteta banks on Saka to fire Arsenal through

Champions League: Arteta banks on Saka to fire Arsenal through

It was five years ago in the cold of Ukraine when the ‘starboy’ stepped forward.

In reality, Bukayo Saka’s journey had begun 10 years earlier after he joined Arsenal’s pre-academy as a seven-year-old.

Yet even those who had high hopes for Saka would be surprised by the trajectory he has followed since that 22-minute cameo against Vorskla Poltava for his first-team debut.

Arsenal won that Europa League match 3-0 and Unai Emery handed Saka a further three appearances in that 2018-19 season, but under Mikel Arteta, Saka’s transformation has been remarkable.

The 22-year-old, given the starboy tag by Arsenal fans, has always had a killer final ball, as reflected by his 12 assists as a teenager in the 2019-20 season.

But Arteta challenged Saka to add goals to his game. Challenge accepted, his tally has increased with each campaign, reaching 15 in all competitions last season.

‘He’s got that ruthless mentality now to be the best that he can be every single day and to really be there on the pitch to affect games and win games for the team,’ said Arteta ahead of Wednesday's visit of Lens in which a point will send Arsenal into the knockout stages with a game to spare.

‘It is impossible not to love Bukayo,’ continued the Gunners boss. ‘You sit with him for two minutes, you get to know him and you get shocked at what a special character and person he is. At the same time, he is so humble, but he’s that person that sets the line there (high) and that’s enough, and that’s a big quality I think.’

Only Emile Smith Rowe, Eddie Nketiah, and Saka remain from Emery’s class of 2019 and it is Saka’s willingness to adapt combined with his work ethic that have taken his game to new levels. Leandro Trossard certainly believes so. The telepathic connection between the pair has seen Saka assist all seven of the Belgian’s goals for the Gunners.

Meanwhile, Arsenal defender Ben White did not train with the side on Tuesday but is available for Wednesday's Champions League clash against Lens

‘He has so much quality,’ said Trossard. ‘He can make that one pass in the 18-yard box and you just need to be ready.’

Arteta is seeking revenge against a team who beat his in France last month and a win will ensure Arsenal top the group.

The Arsenal boss added: ‘We know they will cause us problems. We have experienced a defeat against them so we have the right motivation to put that right.’

Ben White did not train with the group on Tuesday, though Arteta expects him to be available. He is without Fabio Vieira, who has been ruled out until January after having groin surgery.

But with Saka, Arsenal can reach for the stars.