Of Arsenal’s regular front four (Saka, Odegaard, Jesus and Martinelli) so far this season, it is probably fair to say that Bukayo Saka has caught the eye the least so far. Some of this is because he is (amazingly, despite his age) the longest serving of that front four. Our eyes have been more naturally drawn to the contributions of Martinelli and Gabriel Jesus.
Jesus is new and shiny and offers an incalculable upgrade on his predecessor(s). Martinelli is reinvigorated by the presence of his compatriot, swapping roles and buzzing around the senior Brazilian at will. We have been waiting for Martinelli to “go bang” for a couple of seasons and he appears to be coming to the boil.
At his best, Odegaard is a player who demands attention, all tricks, flicks and pirouettes- slicker than oil, smoother than silk. The data certainly shows the two Brazilians as the most tangibly effective members of the front line. With the “small sample size” siren blaring, the numbers around goals, assists and the expected portions of both say as much. (I ought to point out that Saka’s role in the own goal at Selhurst Park is not counted as an assist).
The data also brings out the extent to which players within the front line are ‘clustered.’ Saka and Odegaard stay very close to one another towards the right-hand side. Both are left-footed players and therefore have the intention to invert on the ball and shape their bodies towards the goal. Jesus is a slight anomaly because he really does drift everywhere; but he interchanges with Martinelli more frequently than he does with Saka. The heatmaps below from Jon Ollington tell you the story.
Arsenal Starting XI – Passes Received Heatmap pic.twitter.com/BViMXLfCNB
— Jon Ollington (@jonollington) September 10, 2022
At this stage I will refer to a pair of articles I wrote over the summer, the first one forecasting that Martinelli would really thrive off Jesus’ movement and interchangeability. In the second, I spoke about the need for Arsenal to fix up the left-side of their attack in order to become a more varied and potent force.
Last season, the combination of Saka and Odegaard was Arsenal’s most well-trodden attacking path. This season, that has changed. The introduction of Zinchenko has added flexibility and technical security on the left, while Jesus has allowed Martinelli to take up more central positions. In Arsenal’s five lanes of attack, Jesus and Martinelli have license to move one or two lanes across, like pawns on a chessboard.
Xhaka and Zinchenko have also swapped positions at will, as I outlined in this piece from August. As a result, Arsenal have, happily, loosened their dependence on Saka and Odegaard to get the attack firing. The left-side is relatively newly constructed and contained the biggest surprise factor too, so it made sense to concentrate attacks down the flank that opponents had had the least time to study.
Per this excellent video from Jon Mackenzie on Tifo Football (see below), at Crystal Palace on the opening weekend of the season, 36% of the Gunners’ attacks went down the right and 36% went down the left. A week later, at home to Leicester City that shifted to 40% down the left and 32% down the right as Arsenal looked to cash in on that element of surprise.
It’s why I was not unduly concerned in those opening games when some Arsenal fans started to whisper gently that Saka did not quite seem himself. I always felt that once teams became more familiar with the team’s new look left pod, the attacking equilibrium would be restored and Saka and Odegaard would reassume some of their dominance.
I think we have seen that in the last two games, with Saka far more prominent against Aston Villa and Manchester United- he scored his first goal of the season in the latter fixture. In the first four games of the season, he produced a combined XG of 0.4. In the last two games, that has shot up to a combined 0.9 against Aston Villa (0.5) and Manchester United (0.4).
We can see he has eased his way into the season but we should also recognise the difference between the right-side of the team and the left. Since the right-back, be it Ben White or Takehiro Tomiyasu, does not really overlap, Saka’s brief is to stay in the far right attacking lane. He is asked to stretch the pitch and give Arsenal width on that side.
In short, he doesn’t quite have the same liberty as Jesus and Martinelli to switch lanes and interchange positions. Both Saka and Odegaard largely stay where they are and look to combine with one another on the ball and try to prize opposing defences apart in that right half space. There aren’t two orbiting planets like Zinchenko and Xhaka on the right side of the midfield either.
The right-back inverts to either create a back three or a midfield three but is not really asked to affect the game near the touchline. Part of this is because Saka is so, so strong in those areas. He crowbarred his way into Gareth Southgate’s counterattacking England side at last summer’s Euros because of the way he is able to spin away from opponents in wide areas and carry the ball from the centre of the pitch to the mouth of the penalty area.
That is to say, a lot of his best work happens away from the goal, close to the touchline and sometimes even close to the halfway line. He can receive 45 yards from the opponent’s goal while facing his own and in six or seven seconds he will have it on the right edge of the penalty area. As well as being a structural player asked to hold the width largely on his own on the right, he is also hugely valuable at bringing the mountain to Mohammed.
While playing for Southgate’s England, Saka’s role was to bring the ammunition to Sterling and Kane. Saka’s ability to twist in tight situations and turn defence into attack allowed Sterling and Kane to stay in areas of the pitch where they could finish chances. Bukayo often has a similar role in Arsenal’s attack.
The ability to quickly turn and spear into the heart of a defence is one of the most valuable transitional traits a team could ask for. The fact that Saka is also given the tactically most rigid role in that front four is testament to his maturity. Ordinarily, you would expect the most junior member of an attacking unit to have the most freeform role. We shouldn’t pretend that he has found his best form yet; but we also shouldn’t allow ourselves to become inured to his intelligence.