Saka’s changing roles at Arsenal explained: From Overlapper to Wide Threat

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Bukayo Saka has been Arsenal’s most flexible player since his breakthrough season. He started as a tricky winger, became an effective full-back and then established himself as a driving force in the final third again last season.

His value to manager Mikel Arteta is clear, but how much can that be quantified by numbers?

Athleticism new analysis of player roles provides a more detailed view of a player’s tactical role, driven by the quantifiable actions they take on the pitch rather than subjective positions dictated by starting formations.

Arsenal have players who appear in the same position but fill different roles, so grouping them into the same category doesn’t necessarily work. For example, Kieran Tierney is more of a layered left-back, while Oleksandr Zinchenko operates in half-spaces more often as a ball progressor.

So what did we do? Simply put, Athleticism has developed its own unique set of 18 player roles on the pitch using StatsBomb data (via FBref), which covers players from all five major European leagues over the past five seasons.

This is presented through six main roles (e.g. central forwards, wide forwards, forward midfielders), before then being split into three additional categories for each (e.g. finisher, target, roaming). This separates Erling Haaland from Harry Kane and Dominic Calvert-Lewin from Roberto Firmino.

Despite breaking into the first team on the wing under Unai Emery in 2019, Saka has spent most of that season replacing injured Sead Kolasinac and Tierney at left-back (both as a full-back in one rear four and rear rear). in a three/five).

This can be seen in the graph below. In his first full season in senior football, he was more of an Overlapper – a full-back/full-back who rounds his winger and enters the final third to enter the box.

On the other hand, the 20-year-old’s role has evolved according to the squad’s needs since the 2019-20 campaign.

The decisive change to a 4-2-3-1 came the following season, Boxing Day 2020 against Chelsea. The new formation saw Saka line up on the right wing and from there he developed more into a wide threat – a player who stretches the back line, penetrates the penalty area and is also on the outside. comfortable delivering the final ball that he finishes it.

He filled more of the Wide Threat role last season (54%) compared to 37% in 2020-21 and his influence on Arsenal’s attack last season. was clear in October; he was ranked in the club’s top two for touches in the attacking third, successful dribbles, carries and progressive distance alongside Emile Smith Rowe.

This was noticeable when winning the North London derby in September 2021.

Receiving the ball in the final third, Saka enters the penalty area with Sergio Reguilion at his mercy.

Teasing the left-back before rounding the outside, he was then able to help Smith Rowe open the scoring.

Twenty minutes later he then scored after receiving the ball from Smith Rowe in a similar position.

Staying high and wide was essential for Saka to truly become a wide threat for Arsenal last season.

Often, when the team was building attacks from the back along with Ben White, Takehiro Tomiyasu and Martin Odegaard, he would be positioned wide at the halfway line, waiting to be unleashed – Alexandre Lacazette’s goal against Southampton was the prime example (see below).

This has benefited Arsenal as recently as their Matchday 1 win over Crystal Palace. Eddie Nketiah passed the ball to Saka who pinned Tyrick Mitchell in a one-on-one inside the box before his cross was deflected to make it 2-0.

An adaptable player, Saka still fills multiple roles when used on the right wing. The initial chart shows the 20-year-old is also a decent outlet – someone who receives dangerous passes, has plenty of touches in midfield as well as up front and draws plenty of fouls.

Unsurprisingly, he was Arsenal’s most faulty player in the Premier League (with 123 wins) in the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons. Containing that in the final third, he still leads with 46 fouls earned (fourth-highest in the league during that span).

This comes from a mix of heavily marked/targeted and superb technical abilities. For example, last season Saka started use their back foot to receive the ball on the sidelines more often.

When it works, it creates larger spaces to exploit. At other times, left-backs can choose to foul so he can’t get behind, as Ashley Young did when Arsenal visited Villa Park last season.

As always, roles can sometimes blend into different gameplay phases. This is most prevalent with Saka when combined with Odegaard on the right.

He can start like Outlet by receiving the ball in the middle third, carrying it and then trading passes with Odegaard to get into the final third and shoot or create a chance. This happened frequently against West Ham United at home, Wolverhampton Wanderers away and, most notably, Watford away in the build-up to Odegaard’s goal.

This versatility in his play is the reason why his most recent role spec falls under Wide Threat only 54% of the time. During a season, which is the period this model is based on, he will also play other roles, which was most evident in 2020-21.

Tierney and Kolasinac were used as left full-backs and left centre-backs when Arteta played a 3-4-3 in the first half of this season, overlapping from both positions. During this period, Saka would drift inside and be more of an Unlocker – a player who penetrates the opponent’s half and provides penetrating crosses and forward passes.

Arsenal’s 2-1 win over West Ham in September 2020 is a prime example, with the England international key to both goals. For the first, he is in a standing position in the half-space to claim the ball from Granit Xhaka while Kolasinac (left central defender that day) is on the touchline.

Receiving under pressure, Saka does well to rise to a challenge before passing the ball past Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, unlocking the West Ham defence.

It saw Aubameyang chop the ball into the box for Lacazette to score a header and make it 1-0. Later in the match, Saka received the ball on the touchline, ducked inside and clipped another through ball into the box for Dani Ceballos to get in front of Eddie Nketiah who made it 2-1.

A 19-year-old Saka crossing that left half-space has become a theme of the first half of this season. His home and away performances at Manchester City that year were particularly memorable because of this.

Saka won’t be the only player these role differences may apply to – Tierney and Zinchenko have different demands at left-back, for example.

In midfield, Xhaka was asked to play in different ways by the managers. Notably, he was used more in the build-up game when Arteta first joined Arsenal, before moving to more advanced areas at the end of last season.

From Arsenal’s perspective, this can be a useful way of interpreting how different players who occupy the “same positions” are used throughout this season. Saka, as we have seen, is not only adaptable in terms of position, but also in player roles – another way to highlight his talent once again.

(Top photo: Getty Images; design: Sam Richardson)


From Thiago the distributor to Bernardo the orchestrator, check out our full list of articles analyzing the changing roles of Premier League stars

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