An Arsenal gem, but where is Saka’s best position?
Bukayo Saka has been one of Arsenal’s finest academy graduates in recent seasons. His emergence coming as a real blessing for both Arsenal fans and Mikel Arteta.
There has been much conjecture over where Saka’s best position is, not just from an individual standpoint, but for the best of the team.
This report will aim to analyse Saka’s season and predict where he may end up playing for Arsenal.
What does Mikel Arteta want from Saka?
The first thing to understand when establishing Saka’s best position for Arsenal, is what does Mikel Arteta wants from him. It would appear that when Arteta sets Arsenal up in a 3-4-3, he preferably asks Saka to play on the right of a narrow front three. Saka’s job is to help shut central passes from the opposition centre-backs through to the midfielders. As well, he helps usher the ball out wide. From there, Arsenal can pin their opponents and create numerical superiority and attempt to win possession. When in possession, Saka looks to receive on the half-turn and play combinations down the right, occupying the half-space and allowing the right wing-back to get forward. As well as this, when Arsenal are under pressure when building up play, Saka is tasked with dropping back alongside the midfielders to help link play and progress the ball through the pressure.
From the left under Arteta, Saka has mainly played as a dynamic left wing-back or traditional left-winger in again, either a 3-4-3 or 4-2-3-1. As a wingback, most notably in the game against Liverpool, Saka was able to push high, occupying the half-space. He played more like a left-winger than a left wingback. This was down to Tierney playing as a left centre-back when out of possession. When Arsenal were in possession, Tierney would move very wide and would look to create width for Arsenal, overlapping Saka at times. Similarly to on the right, Saka played in the half channels, allowing Tierney to come forward.
The main trend to take away from this is that Arteta would appear to favour width coming from his full/wingbacks, rather than his wingers. This is down to Arteta’s desire for Arsenal to maintain greater balance, during the course of a game. For Saka, this might well mean that the wide left position, which he has played throughout his career, or wide on the right cutting in on his left foot, may not be viable in Arteta’s team.
As previously mentioned, when on the right-wing, Arteta wants Saka to use his technical ability to help construct moves, rather than finish them. When Saka is on the ball Arteta wants Saka to use his excellent decision making, vision, and technical proficiency to help Arsenal pick the correct option in the attacking third, to best unlock an opponent. Due to Arsenal’s width coming from the wingback, Saka can drift inside and pick offer himself in between the lines. From there he can link with teammates or find the killer pass. Furthermore, Saka has regularly dropped deeper when Arsenal are being subjected to intense pressure, looking to help create central numerical superiority against the opposition.
Saka’s season so far as a right-winger, has seen him play 325 minutes, across 5 games. From this position, Saka has played 99 passes (27.41 per 90 minutes) with an accuracy of 75.66%. In these passes, Saka has played 2.49 key passes and created 1.93 chances per 90 minutes. In total, he has put 5 crosses finding a teammate on 2 occasions. Saka does attempt 2.21 dribbles per 90 minutes, however through poor passes, interrupted dribbles and miss controls; loses the ball 8.03 per 90 minutes.
It seems Saka does love to defend and work for the team, even though from the right, it isn’t the absolute most defensive orientated position. He makes 1.38 ball recoveries and 1.93 tackles per 90 minutes, as well as 1.66 aerial challenges per 90. Saka really does give his all for the team and is very dependable.
Left Full/Wing Back
Under Arteta and his predecessor, Unai Emery; Saka has been deployed as either a left fullback or left wingback. This versatility alone is very impressive from a player with relatively little experience. Positionally, Saka has at times been exploited, however, this is to be expected and is something he has improved at with time. Personally, I feel as though, whilst Saka can fulfill this role, his attacking intent is too strong and he is being limited in this defensive position.
Despite how little he has played there, Saka has coped very well at left full/wing-back. In defence, he attempts 6.4 ball recoveries and 3.78 tackles per 90 minutes. As well as this, despite his 5”8 frame, he still fights for every aerial battle, attempting 3.06 per 90 minutes. Of his total 34 aerial battles this season, he has won 44.11% of them. This is impressive for a player who has rarely found himself in these positions. During the course of his career. On the ball, Saka is equally impressive. He plays 65.11 passes per 90 minutes and 1.98 key passes. Furthermore, he plays 4.68 crosses and attempts 3.78 dribbles per 90 minutes. Of his total 42 dribbles this season, Saka has completed 43.76%.
The left-wing is where arguably most Arsenal fans feel as though Saka is best suited. His pinpoint crosses of his left foot, decision making to find a teammate and his bursts of speed; make him an absolute weapon down the left-wing. The problem is, having Saka, Tierney, and Xhaka (all left footers), on one side of the pitch, may lead to a lack of balance. As well as this, naturally Tierney and Saka both look most comfortable touchline tight on the left. This could lead to overcrowding and poor cohesion.
Yet again, Saka’s dribbling comes to the forefront with 6.2 attempts per 90 minutes and in total, he has completed 51.56% of his 64 dribbles as a left-winger this season. He has attempted 2.49 crosses and creates 1.62 chances per 90 minutes. Of his total 722 passes (35.56 passes per 90 minutes), he has completed 72.41% of them. Once again, defensively Saka excels. He makes 3.04 ball interceptions, 4.02 tackles, 3.53 aerial duels, and 2.75 ball recoveries per 90 minutes.
From a build-up play standpoint, we can analyse Saka’s contribution through expected goals build-up per 90 minutes (XGBuild-up P/90) and expected goals chain per 90 minutes (XGChain Per 90 Minutes). These metrics show us Saka’s contribution during sequences of possession and how great his impact is on possession spells.
Saka’s XGBuild-up P/90 shows that from the left-wing, in sequences of possession which do not end up with shots or key passes, that the possession spell will on average have an expected goal rating of 0.54. This is far in a way higher than from the right-wing where Saka has a measure of 0.06. From left back, Saka commands a 0.27 score. The higher XGBuild-up P/90 from the left-wing and left-back can be explained by Saka’s greater number of passes per 90 minutes from these two positions. This greater level involvement allows him to effect possession more and been involved in moves that move the ball to areas of greater threat to an opponent.
XGChain P/90 tells us how effective Saka is during spells of possession which end with shots and key passes. Again, it is from the left-wing where Saka is most effective with 0.85. From the right, however, Saka shows much improvement from his XGBuild-up P/10, with 0.29. This implies that Saka progresses possession sequences to dangerous areas, where final passes and shots can be had. These possession spells have a great quality to them, regarding the areas which Arsenal can progress the ball to. Saka needs to have play flowing through him, so he can articulate the build-up better.
In conclusion, Saka adjusts well to any of the three positions mentioned. It’s clear that he is most comfortable playing on the left-wing, dribbling and crossing the ball. Unfortunately for Saka, apart from one off matches which require tactical adjustments and specific game plans, it would appear Mikel Arteta would rather his team create width through the fullbacks/wingbacks and that his wingers play narrower in the half-spaces. This is why I think with time, we will see Saka play more as a right-winger. What this means for Pepe in the long term, I don’t know. For now though, it’s important that Saka plays minutes, gets experience, and contributes to the team, wherever he can.
Honestly, in the future I see Saka playing more like Bernardo Silva or David Silva at Manchester City, being deployed in that narrow right position, in the half-space. I see him linking play and being found between the opposition lines. His pace, trickery, dribbling and low centre of gravity is very useful to retain possession under pressure, attract opponents, and create space for others. All of these credentials mixed with a wicked delivery and eye for a key pass makes him a deadly catalyst for play to go through.