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Bukayo Saka

Arsenal, 2018–

Bukayo Saka was handed his professional debut by Unai Emery shortly after his 17th birthday at the beginning of 2018/19, but it wasn’t until 2019/20 that he featured regularly in Arsenal’s first team. An academy product who developed and first featured as a winger, Saka, under Mikel Arteta, deputised at left-back following injuries to Sead Kolasinac and Kieran Tierney, and learned at the highest level with impressive maturity.

“He’s learning to adapt and to sacrifice for the team,” Arteta said. “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 away dugout with Manchester City at the Emirates Stadium, Saka came on for the injured Kolasinac. Arteta must have liked what he saw because Saka has since featured regularly. He first became a key component in a back four that quickly kept eight clean sheets in 16 under Arteta, proving a quality left-back, but it is going forwards that he is at his best, and he is therefore particularly effective when Arsenal play with wing-backs and a back three.

Despite starting only 29 of Arsenal’s 54 matches in all competitions in 2019/20 and spending much of that time at left-back or left wing-back in a team that has included one of the Premier League’s greatest ever creators in Mesut Özil and a £72m winger in Nicolas Pépé among other talented attackers, Saka’s 12 meant he recorded more assists than any other Arsenal player.

Saka’s natural game is to get forward, and he is encouraged to do just that in Arsenal’s new systems. Granit Xhaka, having returned to central midfield in Arteta’s 4-2-3-1 or 3-4-3 formations, will drift to left-back 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 infield to join their lone striker and to add a further goal threat in a central position. The defending right-back is presented with the dilemma of tracking Aubameyang, leaving space for Saka to advance into, or remaining wide with Saka but leaving two central defenders isolated against two centre-forwards. Xhaka being left-footed offers the option of a disguised pass into Aubameyang, which defenders will attempt to cut out, creating further space for Saka.

When space exists Saka needs no invitation to attack, 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 – Eddie Nketiah’s equalising goal against Everton and Alexandre Lacazette scoring Arsenal’s first in the 2-2 draw at Standard Liège in the Europa League are prominent examples.

If the opposing right-back doesn’t move inside, Saka is comfortable receiving in front of his opponent and taking him on (above), and he needs only half a yard of space in which to deliver a cross. Encouraged to pick their moments carefully, rather than attempting hopeful balls, Arsenal are putting in fewer crosses since Arteta’s appointment. Saka does exactly that – several of his assists have come from crosses, and many of those could be classed as through balls across goal for an easy finish, such as that for Lacazette in the win at Olympiakos (below).

He is also content to delay his run, and to withdraw away from the opposing defence until they are set, before accelerating quickly into spaces beyond them to collect a pass and then deliver from close to the byline. Finding players in those 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.

Role at Arsenal
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 his full-backs vacate in the channels, but it is debatable whether he has midfielders capable of defending large spaces in one-on-one situations. If Saka is slow to recover his position then Arsenal could become vulnerable towards the left.

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. Instead of 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 exploited if the opponent can find a pass into that channel. His starting position can therefore improve.

He has, however, already learned the basics of the tactical foul, and does a good job of breaking up 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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