There are few phenomena football fans enjoy more than a stellar player emerging from the youth academy to become a first-team player. When a player develops to become the bona fide star of the team, that emotion is heightened significantly. In the past, Arsenal fans have experienced this with the likes of Charlie George, David Rocastle and Tony Adams.
Ashley Cole’s trajectory from Hale End to Arsenal stardom was, ahem, interrupted en route, as was Jack Wilshere’s- albeit for very different reasons. The differing fates of Cole and Wilshere not only demonstrate the fickleness of fortune in football but they have probably left us, as a fan base, with some scar tissue.
The emergence of Bukayo Saka as a genuine world star has delighted and enthralled Arsenal fans. If we are honest with ourselves, it has stuck in the craw a little to see Tottenham happen upon a generational talent from their academy to become the totem pole of their club and elevate Spurs into something vaguely resembling a competitive force.
Thankfully, their inherent Spursiness has prevented Harry Kane from lifting a pot in a Tottenham shirt but we shouldn’t pretend it hasn’t been irksome to see them enjoy a world class player from their academy in recent years. There is a reason pictures of a young Kane in an Arsenal shirt still circulate so freely on social media and that reason is borne of envy.
When Tottenham acquire talent that develops into the world class bracket those players are usually hoovered up by the bigger boys pretty quickly. Berbatov and Carrick didn’t need much convincing to join Manchester United and Gareth Bale and Luka Modric didn’t need to think twice when Real Madrid winked at them from across a dimly lit bar.
If Kane hadn’t come from Tottenham’s academy, there is just no way he would have waited until the summer of 2022 to agitate for a move. As we saw with Ashley Cole, being an academy player does not entirely protect you from losing them early but it goes a long way.
All of which is to say that Bukayo Saka’s development into a world class attacking talent has probably been the catalyst for the team’s development and for the good feeling that has spread among the supporters over the last few seasons. He is the lace in the Arsenal night gown.
It stands to reason that Arsenal fans feel incredibly protective of Saka. We worry and pace and fret like doting parents. When his ankles are clipped, we feel as though we are watching our own son being brutalised. I have no doubt that Saka’s genteel, affable persona plays into this.
The most wholesome video you will watch today
Teddy sent Bukayo Saka a letter and his pocket money after his Euro 2020 penalty miss.
The Arsenal star gave him a day he will never forget pic.twitter.com/w2UeSZS8bi
— Amazon Prime Video Sport (@primevideosport) March 1, 2023
How could you watch his video with eight-year-old Arsenal fan Teddy from the ‘Arsenal- All or Nothing’ documentary and not be reduced to the sort of ugly crying that turns your eyes crimson? It is entirely natural that we feel protective about Saka and I think this informs a lot of the conversations we have around him.
I think the Wilshere scar tissue is evident when we fret over the number of minutes that Saka plays. At times, I think we almost will him to be tired. Saka’s technical level is so high that he pretty much never scores less than a 7 out of 10 in any game he plays. I think he has also mastered the art of knowing when to hold back, physically.
We talk a lot about his loading, he is currently third for minutes played this season after Aaron Ramsdale and Gabriel. Wide attackers generally have cover bigger spaces than defenders and certainly goalkeepers (though Gabriel has to execute a lot of sprints and a lot of duels to allow Zinchenko to invert into midfield).
Saka’s 2,942 minutes played is well within the range of Martin Odegaard (2,887), Granit Xhaka (2,798), Ben White (2,785) and Gabriel Martinelli (2,770) yet we almost never talk about those players being tired or overloaded. I think the concerns over rough treatment from opponents towards Saka are well-founded.
Yet Gabriel Jesus is fouled 2.69 times per game compared to Saka’s 1.77 per game and we don’t fret about Jesus, even though he has actually had a relatively severe injury this season. Clearly, those numbers don’t take into account the severity of the foul incurred but the Brazilian is fouled for much the same reason Saka is- he is a persistent dribbler.
The discussion about whether Saka is fouled too often is one that Arteta all but refuses to engage, “He’s fine, he got kicked quite a lot today again,” the manager said after the 4-2 win at Villa Park in February. “But he’s going to have to deal with that, not every week, but every three days and sometimes in training as well because it’s his game and teams are not stupid and they want to stop him.”
Arteta has been keen not to allow the player to develop a persecution complex. On the subject of his load management, Arteta is equally unapologetic, “Look at the top players in the world, they play 70 matches, every three days and make the difference and win the game. You want to be at the top, you have to be able to do that.
“And if we start to put something different in the mind of a young player, I think we are making a huge mistake because then [he would] be like ‘no, I don’t play now, on astroturf I don’t play’. I don’t want that. I want them to be ruthless every three days. I want them knocking on my door [saying] I want to play, I want to win the game.”
Arteta’s brand of tough love and a desire for ruthlessness rubs against our desire to nurture and protect our sweet boy. On the occasions where Saka does produce a seven out of 10 performance, a lot of us immediately reach for fatigue as an explanation. Since the March international break, he has only had direct goal involvements in one fixture (a goal and an assist in the 3-3 draw with Southampton).
Fatigue could very easily be a factor but it’s more likely that the absence of William Saliba at right centre-back means the ball isn’t getting to him as early or as often. Saka has averaged 53.4 touches per 90 this season. Since Saliba came out of the team, he has only been above that average twice (55 touches v West Ham and 60 v Southampton).
Even at home to Chelsea, a game Arsenal totally dominated, he had 46 touches. Holding does not distribute the ball as crisply as Saliba (and Thomas Partey’s loss of form is connected to this) and Kiwior, as a left-footer, is a better passer than Holding but is far more likely to pass in the other direction.
I think there is a paternal sense of anxiety over Saka, the feeling that we want to protect him and it often informs our analysis. We are so scared of fatigue and over play that we see it everywhere. If he is going to become a Mo Salah like production machine, at some point, we might just have to cut the apron strings and let the sweet prince become a machine.
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