Sunday, July 21, 2024

A summer of rest for Saka, but what happens next?

Good morning, welcome to a brand new month.

In June the transfer window opens, which will be the main focus for most people, but also Euro 2020 begins. A year late, but still called Euro 2020, and cleverly being played all over Europe despite the ongoing pandemic.

Anyway, it looks as if Bukayo Saka is going to miss out on the England squad as Gareth Southgate trims his 33 man panel down today. On the one hand, it’s a bit of a shame that he won’t get the experience of going to an international tournament – something which would benefit his development as a player, in my opinion. On the other though, a 19 year old who has played a lot this season will have a summer to rest and recharge his batteries, and from a purely Arsenal perspective you can see how important that might be.

He played 3606 minutes of first team football last season. Only Granit Xhaka (3696′) and Bernd Leno (4422′) played more. We’ve seen more than once how accumulating significant playing time at young age can have an impact on players later in their careers. Obviously there’s no hard and fast rule about this, you can play a lot and be fine, but it’s always a bit of a worry.

I wouldn’t have any concerns that he might take confidence hit because of this. He can take a holiday, wind down for a couple of weeks, and reflect on the fact that he was our player of the season. I don’t think there’s even another candidate, to be honest. It’s not that everyone has been bad. Clearly players like Kieran Tierney and Emile Smith Rowe have enjoyed good seasons, and deserve plenty of credit for their contributions, but over the course of the entire campaign Saka is the one who consistently stood out.

I have to say, I’m really curious to see what the long-term plan is for him. Mikel Arteta spoke towards the end of the season about a review. I think he was talking about recruitment but, paraphrasing here, he said something along the lines of ‘We’ll assess everyone and see what we need’.

When they assess Saka, what do they think they have? Clearly he’s a versatile, attack-minded talent who can play in a number of positions. He was hugely effective from the right for a period last season, but given how strongly Nicolas Pepe finished does that have an influence on the thinking? If we have a smaller squad, we need to get the maximum from it. Pepe (2929′ of playing time last season), ended up with 21 goal contributions (16 goals, 5 assists) playing primarily – but not exclusively – from the right.

Does it make sense for him and Saka to overlap and compete for one position? Not really, and you would hope that this summer we acknowledge how the record signing developed and don’t go and sign some aged old Chelsea player to play ahead of him. So, where then for Saka? On the left? He could easily do that, especially if someone like Gabriel Martinelli might be an understudy/competition for the central striker role if Alexandre Lacazette departs to leave Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as the senior man up front.

Back in December, Mikel Arteta spoke about his vision for the team, and the formation that he would prefer to use. He said:

“We want to move to a 4-3-3, but for that, you need a lot of specificity in every position but now in five or six positions, we don’t have it.”

It remains to be seen if this will inform the plan for this summer and the kinds of player we bring in, but assuming that 4-3-3 is something Arteta still wants, it’s interesting to consider how Saka might play a part in that. I think he could definitely operate in a midfield three, and given our potential departures in that area of the pitch this summer, there could well be space. Interestingly, it might also benefit someone like Joe Willock whose skillset doesn’t quite fit into the current 4-2-3-1 but would be more suited to a three man midfield. When we think about reshaping our midfield, maybe we have to consider a formation shift too.

At some point though, they need to make a decision about Saka and where he’s going to play. Versatility is beneficial, no doubt about it. The ability to play in various positions can make you a valuable member of a squad. This season Saka has played on the right, on the left, in midfield, at left-back and even at right-back/right wing-back, and that’s a testament to his quality and his willingness to do a job for the team.

But, we’re looking at one of the best young players to come out of our Academy in years, and his potential is huge. To get the best out of him, we have to decide what he is and what we want him to be, and lean into that. His versatility will always be an asset, but I wonder if he can reach his full potential without – to use an Arteta-ism – some specificity in where he plays and what his role is. Just another one of the challenges/issues that the manager faces but, to be fair, this is surely one of the most exciting of them. To have a young player like Saka to work with and build around is something most coaches would dream of, so what happens next season will be fascinating.

Right, let’s leave it there for now. For your listening pleasure, there’s a brand new Arsecast Extra below. More here tomorrow, and any breaking news can be found over on Arseblog News. Have a good one.


This Arsecast Extra was recorded with ipDTL

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