Bukayo Saka has had a great first season in the first-team squad. The 18-year-old now has a team-leading 12 assists after his shimmy and low cross for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to easily convert against Leicester City on Tuesday night. Arsenal has a new diamond, and Saka is dazzling.
What has been most remarkable about Saka’s season, however, is not just his constant performances throughout the course of the year. He has instead played in practically every position on the team, impressing in each one.
Saka is a natural winger who began his career on the left-wing under Unai Emery. When Mikel Arteta joined due to an injury issue, he shifted to left-back. Since then, he’s played left wing-back, central midfield on the left side, and right-wing. With the exception of a few awkward halves here and there, he has excelled in whichever position he has been pushed into.
He’s no longer merely a promising young player. He is a key player who is being rested in order to play in important games. Saka is Arteta’s go-to performer and producer, and he’s never failed him down. However, as he develops, doubts about the position he will play should be raised. Saka, like other diverse players before him, will have to specialize in a position, but which one is best for him?
He has spent the majority of his career as a wide receiver. He sees himself as being in that situation. He also spent his adolescent years there. Based on his comments about Saka in his news conference following the Leicester draw, it’s not unreasonable to assume that Arteta agrees:
“He’s really good and really accurate. He’s very precise in the final third and the closer he gets to the box actually, the picture is clearer for him, but he will score a lot of goals because he has really good quality in terms of finishing with both feet.
He’s learning a different role from the one that I demanded him to play again today and in some moments he had some difficulties, but he also read some situations really, really well and he was a threat.”
Saka, on the other hand, is possibly the best athlete on the pitch every time he plays at the juvenile level. In the EPL, however, this is not the case, and his lack of top-end speed has been exposed on several occasions.
This isn’t to imply he’s sluggish. He’s still quick, but he lacks the same blazing speed over longer distances as Salah, Sterling, or Mane, the greatest wingers in the division right now. He is more nimble and incisive than pacy.
His best performances at the senior level have come in a deeper role. Against Brighton, he was outstanding in central midfield. He advanced play as a press-resistant option at left-back, benefiting from starting ten yards deeper in attacking moves.
Even his assist against Leicester came as a result of overcoming a sluggish Evans in a one-on-one situation.
This, of course, appears to be blasphemy. How can a young player who has played a winger in nearly every match of his life not be a winger? However, as players adjust to the senior game, their placements shift. A.Cole was a striker, Niles looks more at ease at right-back, and Henry was used out wide rather than up front.
Throughout his career, Arteta transitioned from a winger to an attacking midfielder to a holding midfielder. Rooney alternated between being a striker and a midfielder during his career. Chambers began his career as a right-back, but he has since transitioned to a centre-back position.
The point is that just because Saka has played out wide more than anyone else doesn’t mean he’s the best fit for that position. Of course, this does not imply that the inverse is likewise true. However, early indications from his professional career suggest that central midfield, particularly the wide-centre-midfield role in a 4-3-3 that De Bruyne has made his own at Man City and that Saka so successfully performed against Brighton, maybe his long-term home.
For the time being, it doesn’t really matter. Saka needs to do nothing but play, learn, improve, and fine-tune his ridiculous skill set. However, his best position will emerge at some moment, and it will not be the wing role that many predict.