He may have had his crucial penalty saved by Italy’s Donnarumma, but for anyone who watched Arsenal regularly last season, the positives of Bukayo Saka’s performances at Euro 2020 will have come as no surprise.
The 19-year-old is fearless, and his willingness to get on the ball – even in the tightest of spaces – and make things happen is precisely the courage that Mikel Arteta will need to get Arsenal back to where they should be.
Once the dust settles from England’s Euro 2020 loss, Saka should indeed remain one of the first names on the Gunners’ team sheet.
To accommodate him, it might need something of a rethink tactically – Saka played, incredibly, in 10 different positions last season. Now is the time for the teenager to be given a more regular role in the starting 11, so Arteta needs to get his thinking cap on.
There are other considerations too. Ideally, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette need to start together in attack, Emile Smith-Rowe needs a creative license in midfield, and Kieran Tierney should be free to operate as he wishes down the left-hand side.
So, with those requirements in mind, here’s how Arsenal could line up in the 2021/22 campaign.
Bernd Leno (GK)
Okay, this selection goes without saying.
While not exemplary in his form last season, Leno is still the best goalkeeper on Arsenal’s books, and it seems unlikely that Arteta will splash the cash on a new shot-stopper.
With a back three and two midfield pivots in front of him in our system, at least the German will have plenty of protection.
Rob Holding (CB)
He’s rarely elegant, and at times he’s downright uncompromising, but there is an argument to say that Rob Holding was Arsenal’s best defender last term.
The 25-year-old has grown into himself and now looks to be a genuine Premier League defender, with his old-fashioned qualities of kicking and heading anything that moves matched by a growing confidence in possession.
Pablo Mari (CB)
While Arteta reverted to a back four for the final games of the season – a move which saw Pablo Mari jettisoned – it was notable that when he did operate with three in central defense, such as in the 1-0 win over Chelsea, it was the Spaniard who was called on.
The 27-year-old has weaknesses, but he looked solid enough in his fleeting performances to suggest he can have a future as a first-teamer at the Emirates.
At 23, the future looks bright for Gabriel.
He is a rarity in modern center-backs, in that he is happy getting physical with opponents and sticking his head in where it hurts, but he also has the skill to read the game, make interceptions and then calmly roll the ball to a more creative player in front of him.
From what we’ve seen, there is absolutely no reason to cast Gabriel aside quite yet, although he does have injury concerns.
Bukayo Saka (RWB)
Okay, so this is a bit of a curveball, but hear us out.
Saka is left-footed and, by all accounts, an attacking player, and so slotting him in at right wing-back doesn’t make a world of sense.
But did you see João Cancelo at Manchester City last season? He was allowed to roam forward and leave the right flank when the mood took him, and you can see a free spirit like Saka enjoying similar privileges.
With Thomas Partey in midfield and Rob Holding able to play a bit wider as part of a back three, there is cover available on that right-hand side, and so it would be good to see Saka freed from any defensive shackles in this role.
Kieran Tierney (LWB)
There are few superlatives left unused in describing Kieran Tierney’s 2020/21 season, and it was a sheer delight to see the Scot powering down the left wing with relish.
By playing on the left of a back five, rather than a four, Tierney is able to get further forward and affect games in the final third – hopefully there will be plenty more of that to come this season.
Thomas Partey (CDM)
While he got off to a somewhat inauspicious start in the red shirt, Thomas Partey grew into his midfield role at Arsenal and ended the campaign on a strong note.
He has fantastic energy and athleticism, and his strength is getting around the pitch and breaking up attacks – not, as we saw at times, as a creative force.
There ain’t no Partey like a Thomas Partey… when he’s defending, that is.
Granit Xhaka (CDM)
It’s surely no exaggeration to suggest that Granit Xhaka is one of the most frustrating players ever to grace the turf in a Gunners shirt.
Predicting the performance of the Swiss ace is akin to going to playing roulette at a leading online casino – red he plays well, black he doesn’t.
At his best, Xhaka is undeniably good – as he showed for Switzerland at Euro 2020. Now, it’s up to Arteta to unlock that from him on a consistent basis – unless he sells him to Roma.
Emile Smith-Rowe (CAM)
It is essential that the youngster gets more game time this term.
At 20, Emile Smith-Rowe is still learning his craft, but the best education comes out on the pitch – not watching from the stands.
He’s definitely good enough – we know he’s got talent in spades – so let’s unleash him in his favourite number 10 role and see how he fares.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (ST)
He can be a mixed blessing, but there’s no way you’re setting Arsenal up without Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang leading the line.
The Gabon ace can play as a split striker, operating from his beloved left flank, if he wishes, but really Arsenal just need him in the penalty area as often as possible.
Alexandre Lacazette (ST)
It’s easy to dismiss Alexandre Lacazette, given that he operates in the shadow of Aubameyang.
But he was comfortably the most prolific of all Arsenal’s forwards last term, and with a partner upfront lightening his load, the Frenchman can focus on doing what he does best – scoring goals.
It will probably never happen, but wouldn’t it be entertaining to see this starting 11 for Arsenal this season?