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Licence to Thrill: How Can Mikel Arteta Get the Best from Bukayo Saka This Term?

When you look at how well Bukayo Saka has played for England during the European Championships, you have to wonder why Arsenal found it so difficult to get the best from him at times during the 2020/21 campaign.

It certainly didn’t help that the 19-year-old played in ten – yes, count them – different positions last term. From a wing back to a number ten, Mikel Arteta tried his young talisman in a variety of different roles, and never seemed to find a consensus on which is his best.

If he takes his cues from Gareth Southgate, the Spaniard might come to the conclusion that the fleet-footed star’s best position is on the right flank. It’s there that he has thrived as a key figure in England’s run to the business end of the tournament, and Saka’s form has been such that the Three Lions soon became the bookmakers’ favourites to lift the trophy in their Euro 2020 betting odds.

According to WhoScored’s database, Saka played on the right wing 20 times for Arsenal last season, scoring six goals and assisting four others with an average rating of 7.31. That sounds pretty good by any measure.

Of course, playing with a pair of wingers necessitates certain tactical decisions. Arteta could go with a 4-2-3-1 system, but that can leave the full backs exposed and, let’s be honest, defending is something of a weak point.

Alternatively, a 4-3-3 set-up would ensure there’s more steel in the middle of the park, but such systems tend to load the goalscoring pressure onto a single central striker.

The solution? Perhaps there is something rather more exotic on the cards….

Three is the Magic Number

Against stronger opposition, it’s hard to contest the notion that the Gunners look more solid with three central defenders in place rather than two.

Perhaps then there is an argument for Arteta to field a variant of a 3-4-1-2 shape. He could play Rob Holding, Pablo Mari, and Gabriel at the back – assuming he doesn’t sign anybody else in the transfer window – and that would free up Kieran Tierney to attack down the left.

On the right? It’s unconventional, but Saka could play as a free-spirited wing back, with a licence to roam like Joao Cancelo at Manchester City.

A strident midfield two of Thomas Partey, Granit Xhaka, and/or Dani Ceballos would provide further defensive assurance, while, in attack, wouldn’t it be a joy to see Emile Smith-Rowe express himself behind a dual front pairing of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette?

Of course, it’s a system you could pick holes in, and against the Premier League’s elite operators a more stoic approach would be smart.

But this starting eleven, in this shape, would allow Arsenal to return to their free-flowing days of yesteryear, without completely throwing caution to the wind from a defensive perspective.

We probably won’t learn too much from pre-season – those who starred at the Euros and the Olympics will probably be given a lighter workload, but it won’t be too long before Arsenal fans get a sense of how Arteta will be approaching the new campaign.

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