In the 90th minute, in his fourth game in ten days, Bukayo Saka picked up a headed clearance from Sead Kolasinac in a deeper central position. Finding a reserve of energy, he beat one Sheffield United player, carried the ball, and having invited two players onto him, played the ball to Eddie Nketiah. Nketiah would play the ball wide to Nicolas Pépé, and when Dani Ceballos picked the ball up, he had two possible targets in the penalty box: Nketiah, and Saka, who had continued his run.
Saka has been the Arsenal player used the second most since the beginning of Project Restart, with only Shkodran Mustafi starting all four games and not coming off. That undersells Saka’s importance. Yet while Mustafi has been consistently at centre back, Saka has played different positions: as the right-sided forward against Manchester City, the #8 in a three-man midfield against Brighton, a wing back in a 343 against Southampton, and then as an advanced number 8/left sided forward on Sunday against Sheffield United, a role rather similar to the one Jesse Lingard carried out for Gareth Southgate’s England in the 2018 World Cup.
Saka has played well in each left-sided position, having suffered some difficulty against Manchester City. There were still bright sparks, but it’s a role he is unused to at senior level, and was in difficult circumstances. From the left-sided position, Saka has offered a level of consistency and talent. That he has done so from three different positions is a testament to Saka’s technical quality, but also his tactical quality. Yet it also speaks to what Mikel Arteta is trying to establish at Arsenal, and underlines why Saka must be re-signed.
Among pundits and fans, deciphering a team’s formation is of chief importance. Indeed, it can speak to the identity of the team: 4-4-2 teams are decried as usually being dogmatically British, and 433/4231 teams are European. Teams with weird tricks—a midfield box or a diamond—are interesting and fun, and teams that play three or five at the back are usually thought of as being conservative. Formations have always been neutral, though, and they are increasingly useless. Football managers don’t often think in terms of formations and fixed positions, but rather, of roles and how they relate to space. The numbers are useful to paint a picture, and can be descriptive, but playing a role is more accurate.
Saka, then, is playing a role: whether starting from central midfield, from wingback, or higher up, he provides the width on the left hand side. Where he starts from is important: it is the trigger for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to take up a more central role. So much of Arsenal’s play ends up moving wide because Saka is the player who drives on, carries the ball, and offers an option both in between and beyond lines. Typically, he does from a left-hand position—a left hand zone, if you will—but the increasing flexibility of Arsenal’s system means Saka can also offer this centrally.
Against Brighton, sometimes Aubameyang stayed wider and Saka was in an inside left-channel, and against Southampton, Saka would push on, and let Aubameyang play from the inside-left. Against Sheffield United, with Aubameyang rested, Kieran Tierney would push on, allowing Saka to drift inside, in between the lines. Tierney’s space would then be covered by Sead Kolasinac, as Arsenal morphed from a back three to a back four—or then back to a three, with Maitland-Niles tucking in. It was this base that Arteta began to develop when he first took over, and in recent matches, Arsenal have relied on this base, getting back to some organizational basics.
The challenge is to improve the attack, without compromising the defensive structure. That may take some time, as well as squad surgery. In observing Saka’s actions, we can see automatisms beginning to develop: the movement that other players do in relation to the positions he takes up, and Saka’s own movement into space that depends on what his teammates are doing in possession. It is the development of this choreography that will enable Arsenal’s attack to become structured and deliberate, and allow for longer periods of good play. That Arsenal are unable to put together long periods of passage speaks to the lack of quality, especially in midfield, as well as the need for more coaching under Arteta. But in Bukayo Saka, Arsenal have one piece of the puzzle for the future: a player who can pencilled in for one of the roles in a left-sided zone.