Cesc Fàbregas spent eight years as an Arsenal man. Joining as a 16-year-old from FC Barcelona’s La Masia, the Spanish midfielder made 306 appearances as a Gunner between 2003 and 2011, leaving to return to the Blaugrana with an involvement in 151 goals. Combined with a subsequent spell at Chelsea, Fàbregas is still behind only Ryan Giggs (162 across 22 seasons) as the Premier League’s all-time top assist-maker, with 72 of his 111 coming as an Arsenal player in the English top tier.
Skip forward almost a decade from his time in north London and the Gunners can claim to have a new assist-king. Another academy graduate, the 18-year-old Bukayo Saka has emerged in the dawn of the Mikel Arteta era and become the first teenager to reach double figures for assists in a single season with Arsenal since Fàbregas did so in 2006/07, reaching the landmark of ten with an exquisite pinpoint provide for teammate Eddie Nketiah against Everton in the capital last weekend.
It’s a statistic that has spread like wildfire across social media and gives promise to a burgeoning career for the young Englishman. In European competition, Fàbregas was involved in 27 goals for Arsenal, a personal high of six assists coming in the 2008/09 season, in the more prestigious Champions League.
Excluding qualifiers, Bukayo Saka, with five, already now has the most assists in the 2019/ 20 UEFA Europa League this season (excluding qualifiers) and is the first English player to assist more than five goals in a single campaign since the competition was rebranded in 2009/10.
456 days after his first-ever game for Arsenal, Saka now has a more solid status as the Gunners welcome Olympiacos to the Emirates Stadium for the second-leg of their Round-of-32 Europa League tie.
Arsenal carry a 1-0 advantage gained in Attica. As Arsenal have progressed into the knockout stages of the competition, Saka has proven to be a fundamental part of Arteta’s set-up, being moved into the left-back position (initially taking the role under interim manager Freddie Ljungberg) from midfield. He is one of seven players of Nigerian descent to have been chosen by Arteta as part of their Europa League squad for the 2019/20 campaign.
Saka started the 2018/19 in the under-18s squad but progressed through to the under-23s before progressing to the first team under Arteta’s predecessor Unai Emery in November 2018 to first face Vorskla Poltava in Europe. Similarly to Fàbregas, Saka has the experience of heartbreak at the last hurdle of European triumph for Arsenal, Fàbregas in 2007 losing to Barca in the UCL, with Saka witnessing from the bench the 2019 defeat to Chelsea in Baku.
Bukayo Saka's brilliant reaction to his filthy megnuts assist yesterday 🥜
Like compatriot Trent Alexander-Arnold of Liverpool, the teenager seems to be revelling as a natural midfielder instructed into the role further back, allowed to maraud along the left flank, a defender on the teammate allowed the freedom to attack and deliver. And like TAA, Saka seems to be also thriving under the nurture of an understanding and highly influential manager at the helm.
Ten days after former player and captain Mikel Arteta was announced as Arsenal’s new head coach towards the end of December, Saka revealed via an official statement of his progression under the Spaniard, a man who himself only finished his playing days three-and-a-half years ago.
"He's someone who understands the players, understands the club and all the ideas that he's bringing in," Saka said to the club's website. "He has a clear strategy of how he wants us to play and we're just really excited to work with him.
"He's teaching us little things that we didn't know before and just bringing in his own strategies, his own ways of playing. We can see that it's going to work, we're just looking forward to doing it.
"He has his own way, his own philosophy and he's even talked about bringing his own philosophy to the club, to try to bring the club back to the direction we need to be in.”
Saka’s improvement and greater role in the Arsenal outfit suggest the possibility of excelling on the national stage - there’s of course also the potential for him to be part of Gareth Southgate’s England squad for the Euro Championships this summer. Encouragingly for the Three Lions on his full debut for the under-19s, he scored twice and assisted once.
His team’s advancement in the Europa League will no doubt add currency to his value. Arsenal have won three of their four home meetings with Olympiacos in all competitions, and in Greece in their last encounter, it was Saka who supplied Alexandre Lacazette for that all-important away goal. It gives hope to prevailing the outstanding record of Arsenal having progressed from all 17 of their European ties when winning the first leg away from home.
Cesc Fàbregas never won a European trophy whilst with Arsenal, who also remain without major silverware on the continental circuit in over a quarter of a century.
For Mikel Arteta enduring his managerial baptism, Bukayo Saka might well be the difference to continue the belief that this drought for the red side of north London can end.