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Bukayo Saka

Arsenal, 2018–

Bukayo Saka was handed his professional debut by former Arsenal manager Unai Emery shortly after his 17th birthday at the beginning of 2018/19, but it wasn’t until the following campaign that he featured regularly in their first team. An academy product who developed and broke into the first team as a winger, Saka has, under Mikel Arteta, filled a void at left-back created by injuries to Sead Kolasinac and Kieran Tierney, and has learned on the job at the highest level with impressive maturity.

“He’s learning to adapt and to sacrifice for the team,” Arteta said of the teenager. “If you are moved, to say ‘Okay, now if I do not play good, I have the right excuse because this is not my position’. It’s the complete opposite, he tries to learn, tries to pick things up straight away and tries to be more productive for the team. He has done it really, really well.”

Tactical analysis
In caretaker manager Freddie Ljungberg’s final fixture, when Arteta was in the opposition’s dugout for Manchester City’s visit to the Emirates Stadium, Saka came on for the injured Kolasinac. Arteta must have liked what he saw because Saka has since played regularly at left-back. Saka has become a key component in a four-man defence that has kept eight clean sheets in 16 under Arteta, and a team that has lost only twice. He has quickly proved a quality left-back, but it is going forwards that he, understandably, is at his best.

Despite starting only 21 of Arsenal’s 41 matches in all competitions this season and playing at left-back in a team that includes one of the Premier League’s greatest ever creators in Mesut Özil and a £72m winger in Nicolas Pépé among other talented attackers, Saka has recorded more assists than any other teammate. His total of 10 assists is just two fewer than Özil and Pépé have managed in a combined 55 appearances, to Saka’s 29.

Saka’s natural game is to get forward, and he is encouraged to do just that in Arsenal’s new system. Granit Xhaka, having returned to central midfield in Arteta’s 4-2-3-1 formation, will drift to to a left-back position when either the central defenders or his fellow central midfielder have possession. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, stationed on the left of their attack but a natural centre-forward, drifts into the middle to join their lone striker and to add a further goal threat in a central position. This gives the defending right-back a dilemma – track Aubameyang in-field, leaving space for Saka to advance into, or remain wide with Saka but leave their central defenders isolated against two centre-forwards. Given that Xhaka is left-footed he offers the option of a disguised pass into Aubameyang, which defenders will attempt to cover as a priority, creating further space for Saka.

When space exists Saka needs no invitation to join attacks, and his threat is obvious. He is adept at receiving the ball on the run and delivering crosses into the penalty area, as he has shown to devastating effect this season with his assists – for Eddie Nketiah’s equalising goal against Everton and for Alexandre Lacazette to score Arsenal’s first in the 2-2 draw at Standard Liège in the Europa League.

If the opposition right-back doesn’t move inside, however, Saka is happy to receive a pass in front of his opponent and take him on (above) – he averages a 64.4 per cent dribble success rate in the Premier League and Europa League this season – and needs only half a yard of space in which to deliver a cross. Arsenal are putting in fewer crosses since Arteta’s appointment – 13.9 per game compared to 15.2 under Ljungberg and Emery in 2019/20 – with the Spaniard encouraging his players to pick their moments to cross carefully, rather than attempting hopeful balls. Saka does exactly that – seven of his 10 assists this season have come from crosses, several of which could be classed as through balls across goal for an easy finish, such as his assist for Lacazette in the win at Olympiakos (below).

He is also content to delay his run, and to withdraw from the opposing defence until they are set, before accelerating quickly into spaces behind to collect a pass and then deliver from close to the byline. Finding players in these positions so that they can play a pass across goal for a close-range finish is a feature of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, and Arteta is attempting to use Saka similarly.

Room for improvement
Defensively, Saka still has much to work on. He can be slow to react at the point of a defensive transition, and given how frequently he advances he is often a long way out of position when possession is lost (below). Arteta organises Arsenal so that one of his central midfielders is in a position to cover the spaces the full-backs vacate in the channels, but it is debatable – particularly in the absence of Lucas Torreira – whether Arteta has midfielders capable of defending large spaces in one-on-one situations. If Saka is slow to recover his position then Arsenal’s left side could become a target for opponents.

Saka can also recover more intelligently during those transitional moments. Rather than sprinting back towards the ball, runs inside to defend much closer to their central defenders make Arsenal more compact, and quickly. Rather than worrying about the wider ball carrier, Saka’s recoveries inside would also help to double up on the more dangerous central threats.

When Arsenal are out of possession and in a mid-block, there are also occasions when Saka gets drawn towards the ball too early, and leaves spaces behind him that could be a real danger if the opposition can find a pass into that channel. Arteta will not want his error-prone, left-sided central defender David Luiz to be exposed too often, so Saka’s starting position can improve.

He has, however, already learned the basics of the tactical foul, and does a good job of breaking up opposition counter-attacks when he gets caught the wrong side of the ball. This, also, is a much-discussed feature of City’s defensive transitions under Guardiola.

Bukayo Saka

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