Football Features

“This kid is going to be something very special” – How Bukayo Saka solves two tactical problems for Arteta’s Arsenal

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 10:00, 20 February 2020

Bukayo Saka is having a true breakout season.

The 18-year-old winger only debuted early in 2019, but in 2019/20 he has been making a splash. At first through the Europa League, where his displays on the wing caught the eye – but most recently as what would appear to be Arsenal’s best option at left-back under Mikel Arteta.

Obviously being a slight winger, no one would have expected Saka to be an effective full-back but under Arteta that’s where he has played. He may only be there because of an injury crisis but in truth, he fits the role superbly well precisely because he is a winger.

The big issue for Arsenal recently has been how best to get all their talented players on the field. The most sensible way (and the way that usually leads to the best football) is to have Alexandre Lacazette lead the line whilst Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang plays left-wing.

Now, Aubameyang playing actual left-wing is nowhere near the optimal use of his skill. But if you play him wide left but with the understanding that the Gabonese striker is free to cut infield and threaten goal, then it works. And it works because Bukayo Saka can be relied upon to provide the width for the entire left flank.

This usually creates defensive imbalances, but Arteta has developed a system where Granit Xhaka shifts into a line with the two other centre-backs when the Gunners are in possession. This creates an effective three-man defensive shield and allows Saka to push forward.

The results of this can be spectacular, as we saw against Newcastle when Saka’s positioning allowed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to move centrally and attack a cross, heading the Gunners into a lead. Then minutes later, a piece of individual genius from Saka turned a potentially shaky 1-0 lead into a stable 2-0 advantage and essentially won the game for the Gunners.

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Saka’s nutmeg on Valentino Lazaro wasn’t just an audacious bit of skill, it was also a young player showing his toughness. The youngster had been given a rough ride defensively by the Austrian, five years his senior, for the first half of the match. And to rebound in such a positive way, to dominate him so thoroughly, shows the kind of mental strength that will allow him to excel.

But then that’s Saka in a nutshell, a lithe winger who is tough as hell. Since Mikel Arteta was appointed manager back in December, only Nicolas Pepe has completed more dribbles in the Premier League than Saka’s 10 among Arsenal’s squad. Saka is an explosive talent with the ball at his feet and is growing into the role of left-back nicely.

Having a full-back who can dice opponents up on the dribble is so useful, especially in a system like Arteta’s where full-backs provide much of the width and are often left 1v1. Think about how often full-backs in a possession side have to turn back and pass to a midfielder because the opposing full-back gives them no room. Now look at what Saka did to Lazaro and realise what a gamechanger he could be.

And although Xhaka is required to cover him, defensively, it’s not like Saka is a dilettante. In fact since Arteta’s appointment he has only been dribbled past six times, which doesn’t come close to the 17 tackles he has made – a team-high in the Arteta era. Saka is tenacious and never afraid to get stuck in, but he’s not just some energy merchant either. Six interceptions and eight clearances mark him out as someone who has the intelligence and positioning to be in the right place at the right time to help Arsenal out defensively.

The rise of Saka is such that there is now a genuine question as to whether he plays in the Europa League on Thursday. The competition where he made his name just a few months ago may already be beneath him (until the latter stages of the knockout rounds anyway) as he has catapulted his way up the pecking order at left-back. Of course, if Arsenal really want to pick up a statement win the best thing to do would be to play their 18-year-old left-back, but his talent and skill is so important that it may make more sense, long-term, to rest him.

That a young winger is already prompting such conversations despite being only 18 years old and playing out of position at left-back is a testament to his sublime talent and immense hard work.

What will concern Arsenal fans is that Saka is not openly committing to even staying at Arsenal. With his contract expiring in 18 months, the Gunners are pushing for a renewal amid interesting from Manchester United and Liverpool.

Saka has said: “I just leave all that [contract renewal] stuff to my agent and my parents, I just enjoy my football and play my football. Do I want to stay? Like I said it’s for my agent. They’re sorting it out.”

One note he added will give Gunners hope, though, and may even vindicate Arteta’s decision to switch him to left-back: “Of course I’m enjoying my football, enjoying playing under the new coach so we’ll see what happens.”

Whether he stays at Arsenal or joins another club, you better remember the name Bukayo Saka. He is no flash in the pan, this kid is going to be something very special indeed.