Bukayo Saka’s performance at Leicester City underpinned exactly what Mikel Arteta is looking for from his wing-backs
Arsenal continuing the positive momentum build with their wins over Liverpool [Community Shield], Fulham and West Ham [Premier League] was the most important when Mikel Arteta led the side to the King Power Stadium, and that’s exactly what they did.
Christian Fuchs’ own goal, thanks to the work done by Nicolas Pepe and Eddie Nketiah’s late finish helped secure the Gunners’ place in the Carabao Cup fourth round, where they face either Liverpool or Lincoln City, but it was another player that stood out on the night.
A constant threat throughout the game, Bukayo Saka was exceptional in his second start of the season. His first came in the win over West Ham where he was heavily involved in both goals but had a somewhat inconsistent display in regard to his overall performance.
That wasn’t the case away at Leicester City as he was by far Arsenal’s most impressive player from the first minute until the 86th when he was replaced by Hector Bellerin, who also impressed in his short time on the pitch.
Assessing Saka’s performance as a whole, he excelled in a plethora of areas. When attacking from wide areas, he was effective and was just as sound defensively bar a misread of one long ball early on. What was most impressive, however, was what he brought to the left wing-back role in the way it has developed under Arteta.
Since moving to the back three after the restart, his most potent weapon in that role has been Ainsley Maitland-Niles.
As a right-footer, the 23-year-old’s natural inclination to drift into more central areas tied directly into how Arteta wanted to take advantage of these spaces when advancing down the left. In this role, Maitland-Niles excelled, creating strong connections with Kieran Tierney and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for their passing patterns to be as smooth as possible.
At the King Power, Saka wasn’t scared to slide further infield to fill these spaces and showed great variety and decision making over the course of the game. Although he was most prominently found out wide, he frequently found himself in more central areas.
Here is a clear example of the spaces the 19-year-old looked to exploit. When Reiss Nelson, who played on the left of the front three as he had done effectively last season, would push out wide, he’d advance beyond the Leicester midfield into the highlighted space, while Sead Kolasinac acted as a more conventional left-back.
Using this as a basis to play off when attacking down the left, it created more options to carve the Foxes open as seen below.
As David Luiz advances with the ball, Saka peels into the space behind Hamza Choudhury. As the midfielder is focused on the ball, he doesn’t notice this. Kolasinac also takes up his position virtually on the touchline as Arsenal’s attacking shape changes.
Luiz takes a few more strides which forces to Choudhury to engage, putting Leicester in a great deal of trouble. Now, Luiz fizzes the ball forward into Nelson, who has again taken a wide berth, while nobody is keeping track of Saka more centrally.
With the move flowing nicely, Saka continues his run beyond the Leicester defence. Wes Morgan takes note of this run and rightly decides to follow him. This, however, leaves the highlighted space open for Arsenal to do what they wish with it.
On this occasion, Kolasinac comes off his wing to receive a flicked pass inside from Nelson before returning the ball for the 20-year-old to attack the box
Taking up spaces in these channels, players can often overthink their roles as the area tends to get crowded. Throughout the game, however, Saka showed he was ready to fill that void and act in accordance to what the situation needed. On that example, all that was needed from him was to be a presence to distract opposition markers and create space, similar to Maitland-Niles when Arsenal run their signature move from the goalkeeper to Aubameyang.
Next up in the Saka show was what he actually did with the ball when he received it in these areas. Him popping up almost as a third central midfielder wouldn’t have been what Leicester were expecting, however, he has played that role before and done it well. In the 2-1 loss to Brighton he was one of Arsenal’s best players playing in central midfield.
When taking the ball in those areas, as has been the case since his step up to the first team, he showed no fear but also the presence of mind to make the right decisions.
With Marc Albrighton rushing towards him, Saka knocking the ball past him wouldn’t have been too difficult. A quick movement of the shoulders and he was bearing down on that space in behind the midfield yet again.
Before looking into Saka’s role here, Nelson has pulled wide again, knowing that he would to the inside line. This creates a split second out doubt for Daniel Amartey whose body positioning is now in a prime position to be taken advantage of as there’s no way he can challenge for the ball properly.
Holding off a shove from Albrighton, the 19-year-old keeps his balance and plays the ball into Nketiah, but importantly keeps his run going.
Curving his run to get ahead of Amartey for Nketiah’s return ball, Saka did all he could to keep the move going but was brought down. Amartey not having the time to adjust his body correctly resulted in a clumsy coming together in the box which should have seen a penalty awarded to Arsenal but a warning for the hosts had to suffice.
While this burst forward may have been the most explicit example of what Saka brings when playing as a left wing-back, there were also more subtle aspects to his performance to admire. For instance, the way he read the game when he found himself in those more central areas was something that may not have been noticed immediately, but definitely played a part in dissecting Leicester.
Here, Arsenal were looking to progress through the middle of the pitch. The ball is played into Nketiah and as Nelson and Willock continue to go forward, Saka immediately checks his run before demanding the ball from his striker. Also note that at this moment, the hosts have four men in the midfield.
Albrighton and Luke Thomas [the wide players] start backpedalling immediately, once again leaving Choudhury as the man to engage the ball. Saka dropping a few yards before the play had developed this much receives the ball with a decent amount of space afforded to him while Nelson continues his run.
Almost playing as a left-sided central midfield, Saka floats the ball over the Leicester defenders, who are still transitioning into a back five, giving Nelson a great chance to reach the pass, which he does.
Since Arteta took charge in December, the way in which Arsenal attack down the left has been one of the main highlights.
Key to this has been Granit Xhaka, who has undertaken a role similar to that of a ‘quarterback’ where he sits deep and builds attacks from deeper positions. Often, he would be the one to shape these types of passes in behind for Saka to run onto but having the 19-year-old prove he is aware enough to spot moments in which he can do the same is very promising for what is being demanded of wing-backs in Arteta’s Arsenal.
On the right hand side, these demands have also been implemented by Hector Bellerin. This was very clear in his involvement in Nketiah’s goal late in the game, but has been evident since before the restart against Everton and Newcastle, as well as against Brighton after the restart.
Ensuring this can be replicated on the left has been a clear goal of Arteta’s not just with Maitland-Niles, but also Kieran Tierney. In pre-season, when played at left wing-back, he also pulled into these more central areas where he too excelled, most blatantly against MK Dons. However, there were times in the Community Shield against Liverpool when he tucked in [after moving to wing-back] also.
Heading into the 2020/21 season, Arsenal fans hoped there would be more clarity over Saka’s position in the side and understandably so. After the restart alone, he was used in five different roles [left-back, left wing-back, central midfield, left wing and right wing].
At the time, Arteta said: “At the moment we needed [him] to float a little bit because he gives us a lot of versatility to do different things, even with the same shape. He understands the positions really well he picks [up] movements, the situations and when to use the spaces really quickly, he’s very intelligent and I think it’s a really good thing for his development for him to do that.” when asked if the 19-year-old would have a more concrete role in the side.
This may have appeared to be a slightly disheartening answer but upon reflection, if Saka has the ability to blend so many qualities to improve the side while not being boxed into one category, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
With the way Arteta is developing his wing-backs, the jobs they are doing are very unique despite encompassing the roles of many other positions. While they have the responsibility of covering the entire length of the pitch like a wing-back normally would, they also have the task of using the half-spaces akin to how a central midfielder would.
Having players like Saka and Maitland-Niles who can ‘float a little’ may not be conventional, but may be vital to the success Arteta can have with this Arsenal squad moving forward. It may become hard to predict who plays where, but that will be the case for opponents too, which will only benefit Arteta and his players – if they stay on top of what is required of them in these roles.