Bukayo Saka needs to Play down the Right for Arsenal - Here’s Why
By Rob Worthington (Deputy Editor)
It’s been a quiet start to the season for Arsenal’s resident superstar Bukayo Saka. After excelling in a 20/21 season which culminated in a series of impressive performances for England at Euro 2020, Saka has returned to Arsenal for the new campaign a little rusty. Understandably.
However, the 20-year-old hasn’t been helped by Mikel Arteta’s team selection thus far in 21/22. Usually operating on the left side of the pitch, Saka is regularly seen picking up positions in the inside channel of that flank, the left half-space. This is evidenced by the graphic below from SofaScore which elicits Arsenal’s average position map from their game against Burnley.
As Alfie Culshaw (WYLA Chief Editor) and I establish in the attached YouTube video, the position Saka has been playing so far this season in its simplest form is a left-sided no. 10 role. He is tasked with dropping in between the lines so he can collect the ball from deep and drive at defenders as well as looking to move the ball on to attackers in front of him.
Saka has no problem performing in this role. As seen against Burnley, there are advantages to deploying the youngster here. After all, following an exquisite line breaking pass from Martin Ødegaard, it was Saka who drove at the Burnley defenders and eventually won the free kick which gave Arsenal victory at the weekend.
However, by giving Saka such a task, Mikel Arteta is inhibiting aspects of Saka’s brilliantly rounded profile. Firstly, by starting Saka in a more left-sided role, the unpredictability in Arsenal’s right-sided play decreases. Constantly fearing the youngster cutting inside onto his preferred left-foot, defenders tend to send Saka down the line. Nonetheless, due to his notable ambidextrousness, Saka is still able to produce quality delivery. Nico Pepe doesn’t offer this versatility on the ball.
As seen on the average position graphic above, this time from the 1-0 win over Norwich, the right-winger in Mikel Arteta’s system plays an extremely wide and isolated role. It is a crucial position in a possession based system and those who perform best in such a role possess pure winger profiles. While end product is of course important, arguably more prevalent is the necessity for players in this position to singlehandedly sustain attacks through apt technical security or through taking an opponent out the game.
Without looking to lambast Nico Pepe to too great of an extent, again, he struggles in this area. His first touch, especially with his right-foot, is untrustworthy with the ball oft seen running away from the Ivorian. Furthermore, his one-dimensional attacking approach (cutting inside) makes him very easy for defenders to deal with.
Bukayo Saka’s profile is much more akin to the pure winger Mikel Arteta is surely looking for. During periods of the 20/21 season and of course at Euro 2020, we saw this.
Saka is not one to give the ball away cheaply; as aforementioned, his unpredictability in attack causes defenders constant headaches; and his technical quality with both feet is undisputed. If a pinpoint ball is fired out to Saka, he’ll keep it. This will prove helpful in improving Arsenal’s Plan B build-up of firing it long and wide through any one of Aaron Ramsdale, Ben White, Gabriel or Thomas Partey.
Not only will deploying Saka on the right-flank improve the Arsenal team, but it’ll also likely improve Saka individually. Playing on the right hand-side, Saka contributed towards 7 Premier Leagues goals from 14 games last season as opposed to 0 goal contributions from the left. As one of Arsenal’s best players, he needs to play where he’s at his best himself.
For the good of both the club and Bukayo Saka’s development, the 20-year-old must reclaim his place on the right-wing.