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Bukayo Saka Is Finding His Place, And Arsenal Is Too

Arsenal's English striker Bukayo Saka celebrates scoring their second goal during the English Premier League football match between West Bromwich Albion and Arsenal at The Hawthorns stadium in West Bromwich, central England, on January 2, 2021.
Photo by Tim Keeton/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

If there’s one thing clear at Arsenal, a club whose present plans and future prospects appear indecipherably fuzzy, it’s that the team has a gem on its hands in Bukayo Saka. Yet even in that clarity there is a key uncertainty: Where exactly should the incredibly versatile wide man play? Finding the best position and role for the 19-year-old homegrown Gunner will likely condition just how good Saka can be, which in turn will play a large part in how good Arsenal will be this season and in the ones to come.

That Saka is a player soaked in talent and potential is not up for much debate at this point. The teenaged Englishman broke onto the scene last year as a gap-filling role player who wound up making 19 Premier League starts in a variety of positions, injecting the team with some much-needed energy, creativity, and confidence. Even on a ponderous and uninspired Arsenal team this season, Saka has improved on his breakout year’s performances, and has been the team’s best player so far this campaign.

Saka is whip-smart in his movements off the ball and his decisions on it, is speedy, works hard in attack and defense, has moments of tantalizing creativity, and can make an impact from a large number of areas and positions on the pitch. His driving forward with the ball is his strongest trait. Though he lacks that one-step acceleration burst seen in many of the top wide attackers, when he gets up a head of steam he’s hard to keep up with, and it’s next to impossible to bump him off the ball without fouling because of how well Saka uses his entire body to shield the ball. Whether in his own half or in the final third, whether out near the corner flag or at the crown of the penalty area, whether on the right or the left, Saka can do damage everywhere. This makes him a true Jack of all trades, and it’s why manager Mikel Arteta has played the youngster at various points at left back, left wing back, left wing, right wing, central midfield, and even in complicated hybrid roles that combine, for instance, wing back and central midfield.

Versatility of Saka’s sort is, of course, great, especially since it has gotten the teen so much playing time and invaluable experience from all over the pitch. But as with every Jack of all trades, there is a risk of becoming a master of none. This risk is higher under a manager like Arteta, who seems to have inherited from his old boss, Pep Guardiola, a penchant for Doing Way Too Much by tasking his charges with complex roles that change dramatically from moment to moment and game to game. That style of coaching can create diamonds who truly do learn to be great at everything, but it also sometimes churns out formless lumps of coal capable of performing highly specific rote tasks with aplomb, but who lose any possibility of becoming polished gems themselves.

The hard thing with Saka is that it’s not immediately clear what type of gem he is—which is to say, which position would be best for him and for Arsenal to commit to. He is clearly gifted when out on the wings and can make things happen in the final third, which is why he’s been developed primarily as a wide, creative, left-sided forward. However, he’s not as athletically dominant as your typical top winger, and he lacks the close control of the best dribbling creators who weave their magic in crowded interior zones. (It’s pretty funny how often Saka looks like he’s on the verge of falling over when sprinting in congested areas, and it’s impressive how he never actually does, instead nipping the ball away right when the defender is poised for the tackle.)

So is he a throwback, chalk-toed, left-footed left winger, one who picks up the ball from deep and runs it to the touchline and fires in a cross? Can you get away with a player like that in the modern game, where that kind of width is typically provided by full backs and where wide forwards are more often expected to drift inside and provide goals? And does a spot on the left maximize Saka’s growing comfort in more central areas and his preference for popping in shots? What about playing him as a right winger, then? The out-to-in creator/scorer from wide right is one of the most coveted skill sets in the game today, but does Saka offer enough potential as a creator/scorer to justify handing him that role, when his more evident talents lie in more traditional wing play?

And what about further back? Saka has at times been outstanding as a left-sided defender in back lines of both four and five players, where he can run with more space and provide forward-quality creativity out wide, while also proving a totally capable defender, especially when pressing. It was hard to see Saka tearing apart defenses as a nominal defender himself last season and not see the similar transformation from promising winger prospect to instantly world-class full back that Bayern Munich’s Alphonso Davies recently underwent. The upside in turning Saka into a full back is potentially huge, but is it a waste of his attacking talents to shunt him off into a secondary position like that, when, even with a lower ceiling, he could develop into a more impactful player as a forward? And could you even convince such a precocious budding star to convert to full back full-time when you aren’t a superclub like Bayern?

Luckily, Saka and Arteta are starting to address these questions on the pitch, and the early answers are promising. After so much tactical experimentation all season, Arteta, starting with the Gunners’ Boxing Day match against Chelsea, has reverted to a straightforward 4-2-3-1 formation. In this setup, Saka has played as a right-sided attacking midfielder. It’s no coincidence that this systemic simplification has resulted in three potentially job-saving victories, some of the prettiest soccer the team has played all season, and three absolutely killer performances from Saka.

In those three most recent wins, Saka has scored two goals, assisted another, and played like a natural-born inverted winger. With every match in that position he continues to grow more and more comfortable, discovering how to move with the ball and how to create on the the side of the pitch he’s less accustomed to being on, leaving little details all over the place that indicate that his talent in advanced areas is too great to play him as anything other than a forward. Take his assist for Alexandre Lacazette in the 1–0 victory over Brighton a week ago:

The way he drops from the forward line to present his teammate a passing option, flexes his ability to create an advantage for himself with the goal and a defender at his back (a surprisingly rare skill for young attackers, and one Saka demonstrates regularly when playing as a forward), races into open space, and, after a long sprint, plays a competent if not pinpoint cutback pass with his weaker foot—all of those are traits that point to Saka having tons of potential on the right wing. His goal against West Brom on Saturday was even better, and it’s outrageous how comfortable Saka looks playing and moving in central areas, in a position that is still pretty new for him:

We’ll have to wait and see whether the past few matches have convinced Arteta to keep it simple for good, and to dedicate Saka to the right wing on a more permanent basis. Likewise, we’ll have to wait and see whether Saka continues to flourish on the right, or if he should move back the left, or if his legitimately elite potential as a left back is worth sacrificing what he adds to the team along the forward line. But Saka’s star turns as an inverted winger lately—coupled with his ability to stand out any and everywhere on the pitch during Arsenal’s agonizingly dull stretches, and his searing intelligence and seemingly limitless capacity to learn—should have earned him at least a chance to try to become the next great left-footed creator/scorer. He’s stepped up to every challenge so far in his career, so what’s one more?