In a difficult season for Arsenal, the emergence of Bukayo Saka has been a rare bright spot. The teenager made his Premier League debut last season but has become a prominent member of the first team during this campaign. Initially, Unai Emery brought him into the team to play on the left side of the attack.
With Alex Iwobi and Henrikh Mkhitaryan no longer on the books and Alex Lacazette’s early season injury meaning Pierre Emerick Aubameyang was required at centre-forward, Saka found opportunities as a left-winger in the autumn. He especially caught the eye during a 3-0 away win at Frankfurt in the Europa League, where he scored one goal and made the other two.
As the season progressed, the Gunners suffered a left-back shortage, with Kieran Tierney and Sead Kolasinac injured and Nacho Monreal sold. Ainsley Maitland-Niles has played at left-back in the past, but his apparent reluctance to play as a full-back seems to have cost him his Arsenal career as Mikel Arteta continues to sideline him, citing a lack of vigour on the training ground.
Saka has been a revelation at left-back in Arteta’s system, where he is allowed to push right up the pitch and operate as a de facto left-winger with Granit Xhaka dutifully minding the gap he leaves. With eight assists this season, Saka has equalled Nicolas Pepe’s creative output, which is all the more impressive given that Saka’s total doesn’t include set-pieces.
Despite his impressive performances from full-back, both Saka and Arteta insist the move is a temporary one. In the past, the position of full-back has suffered from branding issues- it was the position played by the last pick in the school playground. In the modern game, full-back has had a coat of gloss applied to it. It’s become increasingly offensive, as emphasised by Saka’s attacking output.
From full-back, Saka is not asked to beat players per se, but to receive the ball on the overlap and whip first-time crosses into the area. Sead Kolasinac was used in much the same way by Unai Emery, though the Bosnian’s role was to power to the by-line and look for cutbacks into the area. Saka stays a little wider, holding the width of the pitch on the left, which allows Aubameyang to move into a more central position.
Status wise, there is no need to value the position of winger more than that of full-back now. Football positions do have a kind of unwritten hierarchy- most players like playing in the centre of the pitch because they are more involved in the game and there is a sense of prestige to playing more centrally, or to playing as a winger as opposed to full-back.
Ainsley Maitland-Niles has gone on record many times to say that he doesn’t see himself as a full-back. Saka has done the same, but Arteta has broadly hinted that it is attitude that separates the differing treatment of the two players. On Saka, Arteta said, “He’s still as keen to meet with my assistant, willing to improve.”
On Maitland-Niles, Arteta’s tone was markedly different, “Ainsley needs to put his head down and work hard,” said the Arsenal boss. “Show me every day in training that he wants it more than anyone else, he wants to play for this club and fight for his place.” Saka needn’t feel that playing at left-back confers any lack of status on him.
In fact, playing on the overlap suits Saka, as his productivity levels demonstrate. Ashley Cole and Hector Bellerin were wingers converted into full-backs with great success. However, there is a question as to Arsenal’s priorities here. In Kieran Tierney and Sead Kolasinac, they have two senior left-backs notionally suited to Arteta’s system, on good salaries and neither has reached their peak years yet.
There is a good argument for selling Kolasinac, for instance, to raise funds. Arsenal need to turnover a lot of their squad on a relative shoestring, player sales are going to form a key part of that. However, Arsenal don’t really have a top-quality option on the left-wing. Aubameyang often plays on the left, not just to accommodate Lacazette at centre-forward, but also because Arsenal don’t have a high end-product player for the left-forward role.
In any case, Aubameyang’s Arsenal career is, regrettably, likely in its final throes with only a year remaining on his deal. In short, the left-wing is a more of a position of need for Arsenal than left-back. Using Saka on the left-wing gives Arteta the opportunity to flip his attacking system a little. Currently, the left-back and the right-winger hold the extremities of the pitch.
This doesn’t really suit Nicolas Pepe who, as a left-footer on the right, prefers to operate as an inverted forward. Saka, playing as a left-footer on the left, can perform the wider role on the opposite flank, allowing Pepe to move inside a little and have the right-back overlap him. In essence, Saka would occupy the same space that he is occupying now, as an outside-left, allowing Pepe to become an inside-right.
Of course, there would be a slight change in Saka’s role. The winger is charged with beating players one-on-one, whereas the full-back chugs into space and receives the ball when they already have forward momentum. Liverpool have come to exemplify this model this season, Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold are the principal creators because they charge into possession in a state of perpetual motion.
Life would be slightly tougher for Saka as a winger, he would receive the ball in more static positions without much support. He would be called upon to beat players. However, his assist for Nicolas Pepe against Newcastle recently demonstrates that he possesses the quality to beat players in tight spaces, a quality Mikel Arteta has been sure to highlight, “He’s got the vision and the ability to execute when the spaces are really tight. That’s a gift.”
Video: Bukayo Saka on his nutmeg in the build-up to assisting Nicolas Pepe’s goal against this evening.
— afcstuff (@afcstuff) February 16, 2020
‘Vision and ability to execute when the spaces are really tight’ is a good MO for a wide-forward. Arsenal are also trying to convince Saka to sign a new contract currently and where Arteta sees him in the long-term will be a prominent feature of those discussions. While no player should feel as though full-back is the ‘last player to be picked in the playground’ position any longer, Arsenal have a bigger gap on the left-wing than they do at left-back in the long-term.