For the next few games, Bukayo Saka will start at left-back for Arsenal, but today we’re looking at whether he should stay there for the long-term.
Over the weekend, Mikel Arteta spoke to the media about Bukayo Saka’s potential future at left-back, and he seemed fairly positive about the prospect.
“I think he could (have a future at left-back) because he’s willing to learn. He is applying himself big time. He is someone that has never played (that position) before but he’s really trying to do it as well as possible,” Arteta said.
“You can see that he’s got many strengths to play in that position. Obviously, he needs games, he needs experience and he needs to improve in some areas but that’s very good.”
For now, Saka will certainly stay at left-back. Sead Kolasinac is out until the winter break and Kieran Tierney won’t return until March, so there are no alternatives. What happens after that, we’ll see, but there are a few questions we need to answer first.
Does Saka have a history in the position?
Despite Arteta’s comments, the idea of playing Saka at left-back is actually nothing new. He featured there regularly for the England u18s, and at times during his youth development at Arsenal as well. Just not nearly as often in the higher age groups.
For the u23s, Saka was a winger. He only played one game out of 34 club appearances for Arsenal last season at left-back. After his summer promotion, he started this campaign in the same way. Unai Emery didn’t use him in the back four once.
There was good reason for that too. In 2018/19, Saka scored 14 goals, provided 10 assists and won three penalties. This season, he has seven goal contributions for the first team. Only Arsenal’s three strikers and Nicolas Pepe have more.
A player with that kind of quality in the final third isn’t an obvious candidate to play full-back. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen though. Perhaps Saka could look to the success of Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold making a similar switch.
Alexander-Arnold played as a winger earlier in his youth career, but moved to right-back when he hit the u23s. All the same, he continued to rack up goals and assists (eight in 14 games), and nothing changed in the Liverpool first team.
Does Saka have the right qualities to be a full-back?
This was something I discussed briefly in an article back in September. In terms of raw abilities, Saka is actually well suited to left-back. He’s fast, particularly in terms of acceleration. He shields the ball really well, and he’s naturally left-footed.
In September, my main concern was how he’d deal with the defensive side of senior football. After all, having rarely even played in the defence for the u23s, there were no guarantees he could handle Premier League wingers.
That hasn’t been a problem so far though. Saka has won 12 of 17 attempted tackles since moving to left-back, a 71% success rate. Arsenal rarely feel exposed on his side. The only area he struggles is with aerial duels, and that’s not uncommon for full-backs.
In the big games, Saka did very well against Manchester City and Manchester United from the bench, playing 50 minutes and 21 minutes respectively. He had a bit more trouble late on against Chelsea, simply because he’d worn himself out.
He has another test at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday, but the signs suggest he can play left-back against the top teams without his level dropping.
Does he want to play there?
This is the hardest one to answer. Realistically, most players are happy as long as they’re playing regularly and positively contributing to a successful team. Alexander-Arnold probably doesn’t care much he doesn’t get to start on the wing anymore.
That said, Saka doesn’t have the same guarantees at Arsenal. If he makes the position change permanent just to sit on the bench behind Kieran Tierney and Sead Kolasinac, he limits his own opportunities.
Then there’s the matter of the increased pressure and scrutiny on Arsenal defenders. The club’s poor record at the back and the fact the defence got most of the blame for the team’s freefall down the table might make Saka want to steer clear.
Freddie Ljungberg joked Saka was a ‘bit upset’ with him after he selected him at wing-back against Standard Liege, because he ‘doesn’t like it so much’. Then again, that was before Saka played so well there.
That night in Liege, the 18-year-old scored once and assisted once. He set Gabriel Martinelli up for another goal this weekend. His performances have almost exclusively drawn praise from the Arsenal fans. Maybe all that will change his mind.
Personally, I’m happy to see him play either position for now. This is a player still young enough to feature in the under-18 FA Youth Cup against Brighton next month. He’s certainly capable of becoming a top left-back, but we don’t need to rush to a decision.