It’s hard to believe that it’s been less than 18 months since Bukayo Saka scored his first Arsenal goal: a lovely left-footed strike in the Europa League group stage vs. Frankfurt was his 2nd of three goal involvements on the night, with one first-half assist before a slide-rule pass to Pierre-Emerick Aubemeyang in the closing stages wrapped up a convincing 3-0 win.
Fast forward to last night, and it was much of the same. No goal this time, but two fantastic assists to his captain on a European night.
Except, it’s not the same. In fact, the changes between now and then are drastic. Saka is no longer the budding youngster with no. 77 on his back, nor is he still considered ‘one for the future.’ At that point 18 months ago, he had just seven Premier League minutes to his name; in 2020, Saka was Arsenal’s 4th most used player in the competition. He’s now very much Arsenal’s present: arguably their most reliable performer, most dangerous attacker, and like last night, often the man to produce the magic when needed most. And he’s still just 19.
It’s been a meteoric rise, and one that’s seen him play in a variety of positions. Initially at left wing, then an emergency left back, then tried all across the midfield before recently finding a home on the right – and he hasn’t looked back since.
I think it’s pretty clear that he’s now found his long-term position, but I also believe every role he’s played has given us a new insight into his wide-ranging capabilities, specifically through the variety of his final action in possession. Here’s how the search for Saka’s best position has enabled his unique development.
Phase 1: The emergency left back and the teasing cross
‘This is like ordering your striker to move into the danger zone. It’s actually world-class. Really, really good. Ryan Giggs used to give those passes, Dennis Bergkamp, Paul Scholes,’ said Robin Van Persie after Saka’s assist as makeshift left back at the beginning of Arteta’s reign. Saka receives a pass from Aubameyang, takes one touch towards the byline, and then fizzes in a cross begging to be finished, so Lacazette obliges. During this time, the youngster developed the first of his final actions in possession: the teasing cross from wide left.
We’ve become accustomed to Saka’s excellent and mature decision-making in the final-third, but at this point, it was still very much new to us. Yet it felt so instinctual, so natural, and so easy for him. A cross between the goalkeeper and the center back is a nightmare to defend, nearly impossible to stop, and unbelievably difficult to execute — but Saka’s final ball was, as RVP said, delivered like a seasoned pro.
Phase 2: At left wing, on the dribble, and splitting back lines
Kieran Tierney returned, so Saka moved further forward in a more advanced position on the left-hand side. As Arsenal’s form improved, their attacking movements did too, and Saka ultimately became more involved in the final third. He became more comfortable in possession, more willing to take on defenders, and more capable of spotting movement ahead of him.
This move vs. West Ham was the perfect example: he beat Antonio on the dribble, bypassed Noble with ease, and then split the backline with a neat pass into Nketiah’s stride. Not just adept from wide areas, but also able to carry the ball centrally before feeding runners in behind.
Phase 3: The reverse pass from central areas
Saka’s positional rotation continued throughout the rest of last season and into the current campaign. In recent times, Arsenal’s front four have become far more fluid than earlier in Arteta’s reign – with every advanced midfielder comfortable interchanging throughout the final third. Although Saka’s starting position is now on the right, he often drifts centrally into dangerous pockets of space.
His two assists last night illustrate how his final action in possession has developed even further. The first showcased his vision and ability to execute a deceiving, perfectly-weighted reverse pass between the lines. Quick feet to evade his marker, a glance up to spot Aubameyang, and a slide-rule pass that takes four defenders out of the game.
Phase 4: The inswinging delivery from wide right
Saka has been deployed on the right-wing ever since Arsenal’s 3-1 win over Chelsea on Boxing Day. The move has paid dividends: the Englishman now has 13 goals/assists in 15 starts in that role. He’s such a danger when he isolates his marker on the dribble, often taking a sharp touch inside before whipping an inswinging cross into the six-yard box.
Last night’s winner was the perfect example. Saka engaged the defender and performed a few stepovers before taking a touch to his left and curling a cross to the back post. Like the assist from left-back last season, it felt instinctual and intuitive – only this time, it was from the other side. Saka excelled in his delivery from the left, yet has adapted to be even more effective on the right, despite the position still being relatively unfamiliar to him.
There’s a lot of reasons to love Bukayo Saka. The youthful spirit and clear love for the game. The mentality to perform consistently in a struggling side. The professionalism at which he performs his role, no matter what it is. But perhaps the most exciting aspect of this 19-year-old is just how far he’s come in so little time. From left back, to left wing, to a central position, to wide right, his skillset has developed and matured everywhere he’s played. And he’s only going to get better.