Is Bukayo Saka making 'the leap'?
By Alfie Cairns Culshaw (Chief Editor)
As Arsenal made a clear attempt to overhaul their squad and acquire young players with potential this summer, there were few questioning this clear and coherent strategy (barring Gary Neville). However, there were plenty of question marks over whether or not the talent in this new look squad was capable of reaching an 'elite' level. A level which could take the club back into the Champions League, before eventually competing for the biggest prizes on offer.
While the season has thus far exceeded expectations, there is still a long way to go before we can truly assess whether the majority of this squad are able to make this big step up. No-one in the squad can quite be considered an elite talent as of yet, and this is fine given the general age profile. With the majority under 24, you'd expect most to enter their prime in the next 2-4 years.
One player, however, who may now be making that step up and verging on an elite level is Bukayo Saka.
Whilst we all knew he was an elite prospect, few would've predicted the substantial progress he has made this season that now sees him bordering on elite so early in his career. At just 20 years of age, Saka's game has come on leaps and bounds this campaign, probably performing at a more consistently high level than anyone else in the squad. He is a staple in our system on that right-hand side, commanding the ball frequently, using it excellently and often operating as our most potent attacking outlet.
Before I go any further, this piece was inspired by Scott Willis' (@oh_that_crab) tweet the other day, so thank you Scott.
As you can see from Scott's data radars above, even within this season alone, Saka has made astronomical strides since mid-December. Although this could be attributed to just a very good patch of form in a period where the team has been excellent against largely lower-end of the league opposition, the general underlying metrics have improved tenfold from last season.
He broke through into the first team as a very competent attacking left-back who showed how adaptable he was by also demonstrating an adept level of defensive output in this new position. He then went though a period of inconsistency, where he was largely deployed on the left-hand side and didn't quite hit the heights his 2019/20 breakthrough season suggested he could. Often crowded out by the marauding Tierney on that side, Saka was a somewhat creative winger with average goal threat and shot-getting abilities. Still of course producing performances (and numbers) far greater than what you'd expect from a then 18/19-year-old in the Premier League, but not quite a player who was ready to take the mantle of being one of, if not the, most important players in a team with top four aspirations.
Then came the very well documented Boxing Day 2020 clash with Chelsea, where Mikel Arteta's Arsenal fortunes turned. Although Emile Smith Rowe's introduction to the side in this game has been identified as the main factor in reversing these fortunes, a huge component of the success since then that began in this game has been finding the right place for Arsenal's most talented young player. Saka moved over to the right, a position that he has made his own since. This Chelsea game was the Ealing-born man's trip to Bali. He found himself that day.
On the right in this system, Saka is no longer crowded out by the full-back behind him. Tierney's high positioning and insistence on providing an overlapping option for Saka meant Arsenal's left-hand side had become predictable, with two left-footers almost always trying to go on the outside. In this new system, Saka has been deployed in an area where he is able to dominate the flank, with the full-back on his side generally playing a more conservative role, often as an auxiliary third centre-back or central midfielder.
Generally, playing on the side of your weaker foot gives you greater variety in your movements on the ball. Coming inside onto your stronger foot tends to lead to better shooting options than going on the outside, while it also affords you greater creative options. Players who operate on the flank corresponding to their stronger foot often look less comfortable coming inside onto their weaker foot than players who play on the opposite side to their stronger foot do going on the outside.
Saka's goal threat from the right has been significantly improved. As you often see with the best inverted wingers, they're excellent at both coming inside and working effective shooting opportunities, and making diagonal runs in behind the defence between the full-back and central defender. Players such as Mo Salah, and even more notoriously Arjen Robben, have perfected this art. While Saka has not quite reached their outstanding levels, he is beginning to get closer and closer.
He's now hit double figures for the season for the first time in his career and this potency is only likely to continue, with his underlying shot metrics suggesting so. Last season, Saka underperformed what was expected of him in front of goal, managing 5 league goals from 6.9 xG. This campaign, he's been significantly more efficient and ruthless in his finishing, scoring 9 times from 6.3 xG.
His shot volumes have increased quite drastically to an elite level. In 2020/21, Saka averaged 2.15 shots per game. In 2021/22 thus far, he's managed 2.87 shots per 90. However, as demonstrated in Scott's radars, since mid-December, he's produced 3.52 open play shots per 90, placing him in the 99th percentile for attacking midfielders and wingers in Europe's top five leagues. For some context, only Salah and Cristiano Ronaldo have more than this per 90 in the Premier League this season. While you'd expect this to level off somewhat as we face more difficult opposition, he has become an elite shot-getter and wide goal threat.
While this goal threat is the most marked improvement in his game and the attribute in which he is currently operating at the most elite level, other areas of his game have developed tenfold. A brace against Norwich and a brilliant goal at Watford demonstrate his ability to come inside and construct shooting opportunities, but they're only possible because of the creative threat he also provides. Due to his two footedness, when he drives at defenders he is unpredictable. As much as he comes inside to shoot, he is far from a one-tricky pony, and will often either combine with Martin Odegaard to get in behind or beat his full-back himself before cutting the ball back with his 'weaker' right-foot. This combination play with Odegaard has been evident numerous times in the last few months, with the Norwegian's goal against Watford a prime example of it.
This prominent creative role has been reflected in the numbers. Last season, Saka was managing 0.17 expected assists per 90, while he's now putting up 0.23, placing him in the 74th percentile for this metric. In terms of shot-creating actions, he's risen from 3.45 per 90 last campaign to 4.17 this season. The value he ads to our attack, using the metric 'attack value added' (a complicated metric I don't really understand but has something to do with ball progression I've been told) has also risen, seeing him jump from the 76th percentile earlier in the season to the 93rd now. Creatively, he's not only the hub of almost all our attacking threat, he's also operating at nearly elite levels.
Other sides of his game, such as ball progression and defensive work, have also improved. 8.44 progressive carries per 90 now compared to 7.22 last season, and 5.53 final third pressures compared to 4.75 demonstrate this. These improvements are easy to reconcile with in the eye test, as we often see him driving forward with the ball up the pitch, while there has also been a vivid increase in how much he harasses the opposition high up the pitch. While these elements of his game are only veering on elite levels, and the efficiency and frequency of his dribbling could be refined, his all round game has certainly made a leap.
Is it the leap? The recent set of games certainly shows it to be, but the sample size may be too minimal at this time. If he sustains this form, then he will've certainly made this jump that we all hoped he would, and probably knew he was capable of.