Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Float like a butterfly and sting like B

Last week, Rio Ferdinand indulged in some pretty pub bore level analysis (what else is new?) in his assessment that Phil Foden can be considered ‘world class’ (whatever that actually means) while Bukayo Saka cannot yet claim this arbitrary and fictional crown.

Both players currently sit on nine non-penalty goals and seven assists for the season (Saka has also notched four penalties to take his goal total to 13). Saka averages 0.85 goal contributions per 90 over his career, with Foden on 0.70 goal contributions per 90.

Now, one should not take the utterances of Rio Ferdinand seriously. However, his assertion certainly touched a nerve with Arsenal fans who feel Saka is serially under-valued, culminating in Rio enduring a flight to Porto that, even by the standards of Ryanair, would be considered uncomfortable.

Ferdinand often deliberately cultivates engagement for his opinions but he did get to the heart of something with his insistence that Saka could not yet be described as ‘world class.’ Since there is no consensus on what that term even means I think it’s a fool’s errand to debate but I think it did expose that Saka is a player who, strangely, flies under the radar a little.

At least, the extent of his talent flies under the radar. I think this is true because I know that I under value Bukayo Saka too. I mean, I know he is good and have always known that. I think I have always known he is a potential world beater; but I completely admit that sometimes I look at his numbers for any given season and find myself surprised.

Saka has a brilliance that I think does kind of wash over you. I am minded of his international explosion during Euro 2021. He only just made it into the England squad for that tournament. Mason Greenwood withdrew at the 11th hour and Saka was handed the number 25 shirt by Gareth Southgate.

With Foden, Grealish, Rashford, Sterling and Sancho also in the squad, Saka was not involved in the first two games at the Euros. Squad sizes were expanded from 23 to 26 for that tournament by UEFA, had the squad limit remained at 23 it is almost certain that Saka would not have figured at all (which would have spared him the biggest heartbreak of his career to date, in fairness).

As it turned out, by the third game, Saka had forced his way into the team and stayed there. Southgate underestimated Bukayo’s talent until it was parked under his nose in training for a few weeks. None of the aforementioned players I listed who were also selected in the wide positions come close to competing for his England spot now.

Saka was 19 at the time, granted, so he was up and coming but to go from very nearly not making the squad to being in the starting line-up was a large and swift leap. At club level, it didn’t take an enormously long time for Arteta to figure out that, while left wing-back is an important role, a talent this prodigious belonged closer to the goal.

So why does the extent of his talent fly under the radar so much? He had never played in the Champions League prior to this season but emerged from the group stage as its most productive player to little fanfare. I think there are a few reasons that Saka’s talent is so difficult to fully perceive at first glance.

Firstly, there is very little about his game that is neon. He collects the ball, drives at opponents and makes angles for shots, crosses and passes, all of which he executes incredibly well but without fanfare. Few of his goals are absolutely spectacular. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of great strikes in his catalogue but few genuine Goal of the Month contenders.

He has similarities to Mo Salah, Cristiano Ronaldo and Arjen Robben in style but not in execution. Those players have a kind of obvious brutality about them physically that Saka does not visibly have. He appears physically slight even though he is not and somehow also carries himself a little slightly. His affable, unassuming personality translates into his style.

While Robben, Salah and Ronaldo (especially Ronaldo) are more like boxers that can knock your block off with an uppercut, Saka is a little more like a mosquito. You don’t realise he has bitten you until you start clawing at the wound (or until you start looking at his columns on FBRef).

Players often see their reputations inflated by absence too. As soon as you watch your team without one of its finest players, you really see the extent of their importance. Happily, to date Arsenal fans have not had to experience this yet. His consistent presence also washes over you.

There is also a strong element of the ‘slap yer medals on the table, son’ in the wider discourse around Saka. The estimation of a player’s talent immediately escalates once they get either the Premier League or Champions League trophy in their hands. I certainly believe this to be true of past Arsenal players and how they are assessed.

I think some good, but not great, Arsenal players saw their reputations inflate by being part of a successful, functioning team but some of those players probably would not have lifted Arsenal higher than 8th had they been playing in 2020 or 2021. It pains me to make this comparison but Harry Kane’s early Tottenham career was blighted by a kind of ‘is he actually any good or is this just a flash in the pan?’ Fug.

Of course, Kane never did put the silverware on the table (lol) but his consistency over a number of seasons eventually moved people to acknowledge the level of his talent. (It is so much easier to author that confession since he moved to Bayern Munich). Of course, the hope with Saka is that he will lift the silverware that will burnish his talent.

Not because it will see pub level pundits accept his brilliance, but because that is what the level of his talent and output deserves and because it will mean that Arsenal are successful. With the Premier League’s economic stranglehold over world football, the club is in a better place to retain a talent like Saka.

The hope is that Saka and Arsenal can elevate one another to glory, the appropriate level of recognition for his talent and our ability to fully absorb it would be satisfying, yet secondary consequences. Because if Saka and Arsenal can be successful together, there is plenty of room on the stadium plinth for another statue. He could be that good.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillmanator

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