LENS, France -- Lens brought Arsenal's reliance on Bukayo Saka into sharper focus on Tuesday. The Gunners were beaten 2-1 at Stade Bollaert-Delelis and the fault lines in their display can broadly be drawn by Saka's involvement, creating the opening goal for Gabriel Jesus before being forced off injured in the 34th minute shortly after Lens had equalised.
They never looked the same consistent threat without him, which is probably why Mikel Arteta risked starting the 22-year-old in France, and after Elye Wahi swept home Lens' second goal on 69 minutes, Arsenal rallied but without the ingenuity or quality the England international so often delivers.
Saka has developed into one of the finest wingers in Europe. It was excellent business from Arsenal to tie him down to a new four-year contract in May and if anything he has improved since, becoming the first player in Europe's top five leagues to register five goals and five assists in all competitions this season.
Saka has embraced the responsibility handed to him. Sources have told ESPN that he felt fit and well in training ahead of this Champions League Group B clash despite limping off for the second game in a row at Bournemouth on Saturday. He was also taken off against Tottenham a week earlier after receiving a kick to the foot and at Bournemouth, a stamp on his foot prematurely ended his participation.
Arteta cannot be accused of complacency, but there have to be questions asked about starting Saka here given his recent fitness issues and the biggest game of the season ahead this weekend when Arsenal host Premier League champions Manchester City.
So did he have any regrets about playing him?
Bukayo Saka was forced out of Arsenal's game against Bournemouth on Saturday with a knock.— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) October 3, 2023
Three days later, he's selected to start against Lens and had to come off injured in the 34th minute 🤕
Arsenal's next match is against Man City 👀 pic.twitter.com/xvw7ApkVrA
"No, it was a knock that he had the other day," replied Arteta. "He was perfectly fine. It was an action, a backheel, that can produce that type of injury. Let's see what the extent of it is. He tried to backheel a ball in the first half and he felt something. It was something muscular. He was uncomfortable and we had to take him off.
"We don't know anything more than that. Obviously, it was big enough not to allow him to continue to play the game and that is obviously a worry for us. I have no clue, [about the weekend], I don't know," added Arteta.
The only game Saka has not started so far in this campaign was last week's EFL Cup third-round win over Brentford. Prior to Tuesday, in eight Premier League and Champions League games, Saka played 683 minutes out of a possible 720. He has started 87 consecutive Premier League games.
Arteta claimed last week that Saka has "now got enough experience to understand when he's ready to help the team and when he's not" but also adding that "we have to protect him... and we have to know when it is the right time to give him that rest."
Their timing feels off. Saka is the type of character to want to play every game -- and that is clearly to his credit -- but Arsenal spent heavily this summer to build a squad capable of challenging on multiple fronts and yet the drop off without Saka in the team is still stark.
This is nothing new and it remains a telling contrast with City. Saka played 3,131 Premier League minutes last season. City's most used player in the division was defensive midfielder Rodri (2,830 minutes) and in attacking areas, there was much greater rotation with Bernardo Silva registering 2,119 minutes, Jack Grealish 2,063 and Riyad Mahrez 2,063. And that was, of course, with a successful Champions League campaign running in tandem.
Arsenal returned to Europe's premier club competition for the first time in six years and need to juggle both competitions demands better than this. Saka's teammates also need to step up.
In his 34 minutes here, Saka touched the ball 27 times, completing 16 passes. Leandro Trossard and Kai Havertz both registered 33 touches despite playing 70 minutes, competing 18 and 17 passes respectively. The Gunners needed more.
There was further fuel for the debate over Arteta's decision to replace Aaron Ramsdale with David Raya after Lens' equaliser. Jesus had shown a clinical touch to collect Saka's pass and fire Arsenal in front but that moment was cancelled out by a poor pass which undermines the argument that Raya's distribution can have a transformative effect.
Craig Burley says losing Bukayo Saka to injury is an especially big blow for Arsenal ahead of their Premier League fixture against Man City.
Stepping out alongside his centre-backs to aim a pass at Takehiro Tomiyasu, Raya's raking ball forward was cut out by Deiver Machado and suddenly Lens could break. Their speed on transition was impressive all evening but this was a problem of Raya's making and when Machado found Wahi, he laid the ball off to Adrien Thomasson, who curled a superb effort into the far corner.
Arsenal never truly regained control. Saka went off, Fabio Vieira came on and although they mustered a couple of dangerous moments -- Tomiyasu forcing a brilliant save from Brice Samba as he met Martin Odegaard's 66th-minute corner -- Lens grew in confidence and Wahi struck 21 minutes from time to mark the home side's first Champions League game here in 21 years with a famous win.
"In a lot of moments we quietened the crowd but after we gave them life," said Arteta. "In those two situations where we conceded the goals. Big teams punish you. We didn't punish them and that was the difference in the game. Today we take a big lesson."
This is only Arsenal's first defeat of the season and although it makes topping the group harder, that is still a goal still firmly within their grasp after just two matchdays.
But they'll likely need Saka to deliver to get there. As is the case in just about every game these days.