By crossing for Eddie Nketiah’s Premier League goal, Bukayo Saka became the first Arsenal adolescent to supply ten assists in a season since Cesc Fàbregas.
Not bad for someone who’s been playing full-back since the beginning of December.
There have not been many bright spots this year for Arsenal but the kind of Saka has been among them. The 18-year-old, who hails from nearby Enfield, was a sin for the Gunners, in his preferred position for a winger or in left-back.
Saka’s screens for the North Londoners haven’t gone unnoticed. In true Arsenal fashion, he’s already found himself in the centre of a contract wrangle. Liverpool and Manchester United are allegedly eager to take advantage of the fact that his current deal expires next summer with discussions progressing ‘gradually’.
And Sunday’s showing in the 3-2 win over Everton will just have helped cement their fascination with Saka. Benched in favour of this fit-again Sead Kolašinac, Mikel Arteta was made to call upon Saka as it became evident the Bosnian couldn’t continue after only 18 minutes.
It was a ferocious, whipped, curled delivery directly onto the toe of the Arsenal forward, making his job easy.
This was Saka’s fourth assist in his last four outings for Arsenal and Gary Neville, on co-commentary responsibilities for Sky Sports, was sufficiently impressed by the caliber of the child’s delivery.
“(Alex) Iwobi goes to sleep just a little bit but he does not do too much wrong,” Neville stated. There’s not a lot a defender can do about this and neither can the goalkeeper.
“The caliber of the cross was absolutely outstanding. All you need is the striker in that position and he (Nketiah) is. He gets a good touch on it.”
Saka has shown himself a dangerous and consistent supplier down the other hand, irrespective of where he begins in the area.
Unsurprisingly, given his natural position is farther forward, no left-sided defender takes more touches in the resistance box (3.49 per 90) while Saka’s 3.15 take-ons are bettered only by another winger-wing-back hybrid vehicle in Arthur Masuaku (4.05). The Arsenal man comes out moment for finished dribbles (1.91) with Masuaku (2.37) again the only one of his contemporaries posting more.
In a time when the lines between wingers and wing-backs have become increasingly blurred, it’s easy to overlook the key use of a guardian and a frequent criticism of contemporary full-backs or wing-backs are they also neglect the defensive side of the game.
Why is that all the more impressive is Saka didn’t move back to play at the No.3 role before December 5 along with a 3-0 defeat by Manchester City. It was not by choice, either. But he’s excelled and, since then, has played exclusively at full-back.
It was Saka who helped Alexandre Lacazette’s match-winning hit in Thursday’s Europa League triumph over Olympiacos. While Gunners boss Arteta does not find the England Under-19 global as a full-back, he’s been impressed with how he’s taken to the job.
“We try to place him in the place where we could surround him with the ideal players in the proper locations,” Arteta stated after success in Greece.
“He is not a full-back. He has lots of guts to make decisions in the last third… I’m quite delighted with his performance.”
The inevitable question now looming over the 18-year-old is if he’ll represent England or Nigeria at the senior level. Though born in London, Saka is of Nigerian descent and there’ll surely be competition to cap the pacey left-sided participant whenever possible to secure his international future.
Meanwhile, however, Arteta says his job is to maintain Saka’s feet on the floor after a stunning breakout period.
“Bukayo had some problems as well before the game but he then began to play after a couple of minutes,” the Spaniard stated after Sunday’s win.
“It was an excellent contribution offensively but also there are other moments when he revealed today that there’s still a great deal of margin for him for advancement, and he wants to keep his feet on the floor and we must help him to do that.”