Bukayo Saka started at left-back for the England u19s on Monday, a change from his usual role as a winger with Arsenal.
After winning a penalty in a substitute appearance for the u19s against Greece last Thursday, Saka got a chance from the start against Germany on Monday. Rather than taking up his usual left-wing position though, the 18-year-old instead featured as a full-back.
This isn’t an entirely new thing for the teenager. He played as a left-back at stages earlier in his club career, and he featured there a few times with the England u18s. However, he only made one of his 34 club appearances as a defender last season, so it’s far from common.
On the surface, Saka appears well suited to a full-back position. His speed and acceleration help him getting up and down the touchline, whilst his dribbling ability and left-footedness are ideal on the left.
Saka is much less tested at higher levels defensively though, which could obviously be a problem.
It’s hard to say how well he’d do at that side of the game when we’ve almost never seen him play left-back with the u23s, let alone a senior side. His left-wing role last season involved him deliberately staying further up the pitch for most of the match, to help Arsenal counter-attack quickly.
In Monday’s match for England, Saka made some good challenges but didn’t always have the right starting position defensively. It wasn’t a major issue on the day, but that’s the sort of thing you only learn by playing as a defender regularly, which he hasn’t been.
The winger is also a risk-taker, which is great in the final third, but something he’d need to tone down in a defensive position. Even playing left-back he managed dribbling highlight plays like this:
Only takes four players and a foul to stop Saka once he gets going. Too quick ⚡️pic.twitter.com/QDDaVSMBYF
— Dan Critchlow (@afcDW) September 9, 2019
Saka was moved back upfield towards the end of the game as England searched for a goal, 1-0 down. He quickly had a couple of opportunities and almost scored an equaliser, if not for a good save from the German goalkeeper with his feet.
It wasn’t that he’d been playing so badly at left-back that he had to move upfield – far from it. It was simply clear to the England u19 boss that he was having no luck in attacking areas with the starting left-winger and he needed Saka to provide inspiration.
That’s what I’d be most hesitant about with Saka playing at left-back. His defending does require further evaluation, but it’s early days with such a young player anyway. The biggest worry right now is stifling his clear attacking potential with a position change.
Of course, if he could play left-back for Arsenal, that would be a good boost to Unai Emery’s options this month. Kieran Tierney isn’t quite back to full fitness, nor is Tolaji Bola, and Nacho Monreal and Dominic Thompson left the club over the summer, leaving only Sead Kolasinac as things stand.
It wouldn’t be the worst idea to give Saka a try at left-back in a low-pressure fixture like the League Cup tie against Nottingham Forest. It is a risk though, and those claiming Saka has now ‘found his position’ at left-back are jumping the gun.