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Is something wrong with Bukayo Saka?

In which the eye-test is pitted against the advanced stats.

Arsenal v AFC Wimbledon - Carabao Cup Third Round Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

Bukayo Saka is a bonafide superstar-in-the-making. The vast majority of pundits and prognosticators would agree with that take, I think. The Arsenal attack, however, has struggled this season. Is Bukayo Saka to blame for the Gunners’ attacking struggles (or some of them, at least)?

To me, Saka is lacking a little bit of sharpness and isn’t making the best decisions with the ball in high-danger areas. It doesn’t feel like he’s having the same level of impact on matches. I don’t have the same sense of “something good is going to happen” when he gets the ball on the wing this season as I did last year.

Let’s look at the numbers on fbref.com to see what they have to say about that Bukayo Saka eye-test. That link is to a comparison of Saka’s 2020-21 season numbers with his 2021-22 numbers so far. And before we go further, yes, this season is still in the “small(ish) sample size” category, so take it with a grain of salt.

Two things jump out at me:

  • His expected goals and assists (both overall and non-penalty) per 90 minutes are down: .41 npxG + xA per 90 last season, .34 this season.
  • His shot-creating actions per 90 are up (3.45 last year, 4.35 this year) but his goal-creating actions per 90 are down (.42 last year, .30 this year).

Beyond that, the rest of his numbers are about the same (the familiar fbref tables with the pretty lines are here - last season, this season). They’re better in some categories and not as good in others, but there is not enough difference either way to suggest a massive change in his level of play.

I’ll be honest: after my first look at the numbers, it felt like they confirmed what I suspected — that Bukayo Saka wasn’t quite up to the same level as he was last season. And there is a bit of that. His expected goals and assists per 90 are down. Other categories aren’t as eye-poppingly impressive.

The more I dug into the stats and thought about them, however, the more I reevaluated that conclusion. His role has changed. The “similar players” to Saka from last year include Christian Pulisic, Raphina, Pedro Neto, and Kai Havertz. This year, Saka compares with Mason Greenwood, Son Heung-min, Harvey Barnes, Jack Grealish, Adama Traoré, and Wilfried Zaha. I see a shift from passer-dribbler to dribbler-passer (the order of the two being the salient part).

Saka is being asked (or forced) to do different things. He is carrying the ball more and passing it less. And he’s taking more “boom or bust” chances, which helps explain why his shot creation is up but so are the number of times he’s been dispossessed and the number of passes he’s had intercepted. He’s had 20 this season compared to 22 all of last year.

Stepping back from the stats but keeping them in mind to inform conclusions and watching the game (wink), Arsenal are relying on Saka to do more and create more but to make it happen virtually by himself.

The Gunners’ attack tends to flow down the left. Like Nicolas Pépé often is on the right side, Saka seems isolated. He’s having to take on multiple defenders and doesn’t have an overlapping fullback to support him. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang likes to drift left not right. Emile Smith Rowe is operating more on the left this season as opposed to the more central role he took up last year. Very little happens on the Arsenal right.

Other teams are probably more focused on the threat Saka poses, as well. That would certainly help explain why he seems to have more defenders in front of and around him this season.

And all of that is happening while the attack is faltering overall. Opposing teams can key on Saka even more because there is less danger posed by other players / the formation and tactics. On top of that, Arsenal aren’t seeing as much of the ball. So Saka is seeing less of the ball. It’s tough for any attacker to put up good numbers like that.

Saka also “suffers” from the weight of expectation. We know how good of a player he is. He did brilliant things last season, and he’s not doing those same things this year. The numbers and some critical reflection show us that he’s doing different, really good things this season. But the change in form of those contributions (from passing and combination-based to dribbling and more individual-based) may be creating a bit of dissonance that reads as “he’s not playing as well” when it’s simply just different.

Anecdotally, I do think his decision-making in and around the box could improve. How much of that is on him and how much is on his teammates not providing options or enough threat to draw defenders is an open question. I’ve long maintained that his biggest room for improvement lies in his finishing, and I think that critique stands. He’s not a great shooter. Adding more of a goal threat (like Emile Smith Rowe has done this season) will open things up tremendously for Saka and for Arsenal.

But is there something wrong with Bukayo Saka this season? I thought there might be. But there isn’t. He’s still very good. He’s just doing different things.