Bukayo Saka has flourished in almost every position he has played in the Arsenal first-team. But where is the 18-year-old’s actual best position?
It has been a remarkable first season in the first-team squad for Bukayo Saka. After his shimmy and low cross for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to easily convert against Leicester City on Tuesday night, the 18-year-old now has a team-leading 12 assists on the season. Arsenal have a new gem and Saka is shining bright.
What has been most sensational about Saka’s campaign, however, is not just the performances that he has consistently produced throughout the year. Rather, he has played at almost every position in the team, impressing in each of them.
More from Pain in the Arsenal
- 3 standout players from 1-0 victory over Everton
- 3 positives & negatives from Goodison Park victory
- Arsenal vs PSV preview: Prediction, team news & lineups
- 3 talking points from Arsenal’s victory at Goodison Park
- Mikel Arteta provides Gabriel Martinelli injury update after Everton win
Saka is a winger by trade and was first started at left-wing under Unai Emery. He then moved to left-back when Mikel Arteta arrived thanks to an injury crisis. He has since played left wing-back, a left-sided central midfield role, and right-wing. Bar a couple of uncomfortable halves here and there, for the most part, he has settled into whatever position he has been thrust into superbly.
He is now more than just a young prospect. He is a key player who is being rested to feature in big matches. Arteta relies on him to perform and produce, and Saka has rarely let his manager down. But as his development continues, questions should be asked of the position that he will play. Like other versatile players before him, Saka will need to specialise in a certain position, but which is his best?
He has played out wide for the majority of his career. That is where he considers himself. It also where he spent his youth career. Based on how Arteta spoke about Saka in his press conference after the Leicester draw, it is not unreasonable to think that he 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.”"
However, at the youth level, Saka is likely the best athlete on the pitch every time he plays. The same is not true in the Premier League, and his lack of top-end speed has been found out on occasions.
This is not to say that he is slow. He is still fast, but unlike a Mohamed Salah, Raheem Sterling or Sadio Mane, the best wingers in the division at present, he does not possess the same burning speed over longer distances. He is more quick and sharp than pacy.
And at the senior level, his best performances have come in a deeper role. He was superb in central midfield against Brighton. At left-back, he helped progress play as a press-resistant option, benefitting from starting ten yards deeper in attacking moves. Even his assist against Leicester stemmed from beating a slow Jonny Evans in a one-on-one. When faced with modern, athletic full-backs, Saka rarely beats them.
Of course, this sounds like blasphemy. How can a young player who has played almost every match in his life as a winger not be a winger? But then, as players adapt to the senior game, positions change. Ashley Cole was a striker, Ainsley Maitland-Niles looks much more comfortable at right-back, Thierry Henry played out wide, not up-front.
Positions change over time, too. Arteta himself turned from a winger into an attacking midfield into a holding player throughout his career. Wayne Rooney drifted between playing as a striker and as a midfielder. Calum Chambers arrived as a right-back but will settle into a centre-back role.
The point is this: just because Saka has played out wide more than any other position does not mean he is best-suited to that role. That also does not mean the opposite is true either, of course. But the early glimpses of his senior career suggest that perhaps central midfield, especially the wide-central-midfield role in a 4-3-3 that Kevin de Bruyne has made his own at Manchester City and that Saka performed so brilliantly against Brighton, will be his long-term home.
For now, this does not really matter. Saka simply needs to play, to learn, to develop, and to fine-tune his outrageous skill set. But at some point, his best position will emerge and it won’t necessarily be the wing role that many expect.