Sunday, July 21, 2024

Saka, fouls, and a lack of protection

Later today Arsenal will hold a training session ahead of the Europa League game against FC Zurich tomorrow night. Typically, the first 15 minutes of these sessions are ‘open’ to the media, and the main point of interest will be the involvement, or not, of Bukayo Saka.

He was forced off during the 5-0 win over Nottingham Forest, and concerns are understandable. He gets kicked all the time, but very, very rarely does he have to be replaced because of that. He tends to grimace, get up, carry on, hurt the opposition, and then maybe get kicked again. Repeat to fade.

People have worried about Bukayo Saka and injury because for the last 12-18 months we haven’t really had a credible alternative to him in the squad, and we ran the potential risk of burnout or overplaying him. It was obvious last season that Nicolas Pepe was very much a last resort option for Mikel Arteta, while this season the options have been deeper, but still not ones the manager has had full confidence in yet. Fabio Vieira and Marquinhos are still finding their feet in English football, and as good as Reiss Nelson was on Sunday, I don’t know that there were too many people expecting that kind of contribution from him.

For me though, my major worry was far more that an injury might come from a bad tackle rather than the schedule. Let’s not forget, last season was Europe-free, and that meant – more or less – 90 minutes a week for most of the campaign. When you consider what we’ve got on our agenda this season, it seems quite funny that anyone worried about overplaying at all.

Last season, Saka was the most fouled player at Arsenal in the Premier League. Via fBref, he was fouled 59 times. The next closest was Gabriel Magalhaes with 38, then Alexandre Lacazette with 29.

This season, he’s had that top spot taken away from him, and I don’t suppose it’ll be any surprise to anyone to know that Gabriel Jesus is this season’s most fouled player with 32. He’s followed by Saka on 17, and Gabriel Martinelli on 16. Part of why that is is obvious: Jesus is relentless menace, the footballing version of Principal Skinner pursuing a truant Bart Simpson. He will not stop, and with 55 attempted dribbles to his name this season, he is top of that list and thus taken out more often than anyone else.

Saka is not far behind though with 43 attempted dribbles (Martinelli is on 45), but I think part of the reason he’s not fouled quite as much this season is because teams often double up on him. When he receives the ball, there are two men around him because they know the threat he possesses. Not always though, as we saw in the first minute of the Forest game when Saka received pass from Ben White and the left-back Lodi went right through the back of him.

For me, that’s a yellow card, but referees are so reluctant to punish fouls with bookings early on, players know they can get a free hit. That then sets the tone for the rest of the game, because another guy will think ‘Well, if he can do that, I can get away with one too’.

I think it was far more prevalent last season. Saka being kicked or fouled, and referees not giving him the free kicks he deserved. But we’ve seen it this season too. He was ludicrously booked at Southampton when clearly he was caught. There was the time in the same game when he was wrestled to the ground and the referee played on (I guess in a ‘Let it flow’ decision). And even in Europe, there was a moment in the PSV game when he was tripped, went flying, and the ref played on.

I don’t know what it is exactly, but there are some players who can fall down from a defender’s whisper and get a decision, and others who are routinely ignored despite much more substantial contact. Think of this being just a yellow card last season:

Saka McArthur

 

Or when Tyrone Mings literally threw him to the ground in the box and we didn’t get a penalty. Or when Mings went through the back of him at Villa Park, leaving him with a bloody ankle after which Steven Gerrard basically said ‘Toughen up because I have a leg full of screws and that’s just the way it is,’, as if being left half-crippled in your retirement by on-field brutality is a rite of passage that everyone should go through.

I really think those comments haven’t helped, because foul play on Saka is routinely ignored in comparison to other players. It’s an ongoing issue, and it’s strange that one of the England national side’s brightest and most important talents is being treated this way. I don’t think he should get special protection, I think he should simply get the free kicks that he is entitled to, and the opposition ought to be punished correctly for challenges which deserve cards. That’s it.

I’ve seen people suggest he’s taken to diving, and I can’t agree with that at all. What I see is a player who knows he’s going to be booted around all day long, and at times anticipates that contact to protect himself. Evasive manoeuvers are not diving, and if you’re happy Saka hasn’t been sidelined for any significant period to date, be thankful he’s learning how to deal with the kind of physical attention he gets.

Still, this isn’t the first time I’ve written something like this, and I fear it won’t be the last. All we can do is hope that in the absence of decent officiating, Saka avoids the kind of challenge from which a bad injury feels almost inevitable. Nobody wants to say ‘I told you so’.

Till tomorrow.

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