n a night when they were hoping to witness the debut of a teenager earmarked as a centrepiece of the club’s future, Arsenal fans were instead served up yet another reminder of how critical their young stars already are to its present.
After speculation to the contrary, Mikel Arteta decided Wednesday’s Carabao Cup tie against AFC Wimbledon was not the moment to thrust 17-year-old midfielder Charlie Patino into the spotlight, as he plumped for a more experienced side made up of players on the fringes of the first XI but ultimately ended up calling on academy graduates Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe to get the job done and set-up a fourth-round clash with Leeds United.
Alexandre Lacazette’s early penalty looked to have paved the way for a comfortable evening but though they were untroubled defensively, it was only after the introductions of first Smith Rowe and then Saka that the Gunners went through the gears to seal a 3-0 victory over the League One outfit.
After numerous wasted openings, it was Smith Rowe who eventually doubled the lead from close range with just under a quarter-of-an-hour to play before another Hale End product, Eddie Nketiah, added a terrific, flicked third, Saka playing a key role in the build-up to both goals and then going close twice more himself.
“At 1-0 up they’re still in the game and at a set-piece we could concede so we knew we had to close the game,” Arteta admitted afterwards. “We did that at the end and it looked comfortable but it was a tough game.”
The night ended with Arteta posing for pictures with young fans, a scene that frustrated stewards trying desperately to clear the ground, but spoke of an improving atmosphere inside the club, albeit one as much exaggerated by cheap tickets and the excitable, novel sections of the crowd they brought in as the three successive wins.
“To have 50,000 fans in the Carabao Cup on a Wednesday night is pretty special,” Arteta said. “The players notice that and obviously that raises the level of demands.”
There was a time under Arsene Wenger when League Cup nights at the Emirates often felt like this, an escape from the stresses of the Premier League, a chance to get lost in a flurry of Carlos Vela chips and Jack Wilshere turns.
That Arteta went for barely a smattering of untested youth in his matchday squad, never mind the wholesale injection Wenger often favoured, said much about the position he finds himself in managing what is still a bloated squad; with no European football, the fixture list looks uncomfortably light and opportunities to dish out playing time are rare. Even Patino, around whom the hype is building fast after a string of superb Under-23s performances, could not force his way onto the bench.
“He was very close,” Arteta said. “But at the end we decided that some players needed minutes. It will happen naturally with time.”
Amid ten changes, Thomas Partey was the sole survivor from the win at Burnley, having pushed to be involved as he searches for sharpness ahead of Sunday’s north London derby. The Ghanaian outshone any of those looking to state a case to start that game alongside him, running the show for 60 minutes before his departure paved the way for Smith Rowe’s arrival.
Saka’s soon after brought just about the loudest cheer of the night, many thousands of fans not fortunate enough to attend games more regularly no doubt taking their chance to show their appreciation and support after his glorious but traumatic summer.
The 20-year-old has been understandably slow to warm into the new campaign, but there were as many encouraging signs in his 15-minute cameo as there were in Partey’s hour-long main event. As thoughts turn to Tottenham, that is good news indeed.
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