If there’s been a really nice revelation this season for every Arsenal fan to be proud of and look forward to, it has been Bukayo Saka’s continued growth. Potentially more important, has been the fact that Arsenal’s positionally-nomadic, teenage superstar seems to have found himself a home on the pitch. From left back to left wingback to left wing, and finally on the right wing, Bukayo Saka has made his way just about everywhere.
His play on the right side didn’t always look like the complete product it now does, but with 6 goals and 5 assists to his name in 15 matches on the right wing, Saka has played in a fashion that many fans will have hoped Pepe, or even Willian, would have brought to the position. Now that role seems all but his for the foreseeable future.
This fact made it all the more surprising to most people when they saw Arsenal trot onto the field, take their place to begin the match against Manchester City, and noticed Saka on the left wing with Pepe on the right wing. Similar to Saka in some degree, Pepe has also found form since the new year, but it has to come from the left wing not the right.
Whether the decision to make this change was correct or not is something fans can debate; after all, Arsenal lost 1-0 in which the scoreline looks far more valiant than the match itself ever was. But the result shouldn’t take everything away from the thought process and reasoning that went into the tactical switch. That selection, in and of itself, does make a lot of sense, leading to some frustration for City and a half-chance or two for Arsenal. But it might not have been entirely clear during the match as fans watched on in frustration as Arsenal treaded water.
I think there are three aspects of the match to look at and consider when trying to understand the decision and determine if it was the right choice:
- Joao Cancelo
- Accommodating Aubameyang’s attacking space
- Deep lying transition
I wasn’t sure whether it was best to start with the reasons that discuss when Arsenal are in possession or out possession first, but since Arsenal spent more the match on the defense and containing City, I thought we would start with the marking of Joao Cancelo. Keep in mind, that all of these aspects interchange and interact with one another very fluidly throughout the match.
Marking Joao Cancelo
With the droves of talent at their disposal and Pep’s attacking philosophy and football IQ, a world of fluid attacking and positionless football is often a feature of this league-leading City side. Interchanges and exchanges, numbers forward and spaces replaced; maybe some consider it too rigid to be total football, but it’s got its moments.
Despite the fact that 39% of City’s attacking movements came down the left side, some of their most fluid and dangerous moments came down the right. City’s right back, Joao Cancelo is a major part of those forays forward and he’s given the freedom to tuck in centrally and join the midfield at will.
One of Saka’s jobs throughout the match was to track Cancelo and mark him closely.
In all of these images, you see Saka (yellow) dropping very deep defensively to stick with Cancelo (blue), even to the point of sticking tighter to Cancelo’s movements than the ball itself, as seen in the third and fourth image above.
These images not only depict the close marking that Saka was tasked with, it also displays the many different attacking positions that Manchester City look to move Cancelo into. Tucked into the midfield, into the attacking third, and even looking to make a forward run into the box and beyond Arsenal’s backline in that final one.
It was a full match task from that left side and, with all due respect to Pepe, it would be fair to suggest that Saka was more fit for the work than Nicolas. While Pepe’s workrate off the ball has been improving, man marking someone like Cancelo might be a step beyond what he can offer.
Accommodate Aubameyang’s attacking space
To move our conversation into the attacking side of Saka’s responsibility, and understand what he looked to do and how it paired with his defensive responsibilities, we have to look at the setup and shape.
Arsenal’s front four, actually looked to operate in a very similar fashion to how the front four played against Leeds, and even Benfica with Emile Smith Rowe on the left.
Above we have the rotational shape that led to dangerous opportunities, and freed up space for Aubameyang to attack from that tucked in left channel — the same one he looks to get into when he plays a left winger. With Emile Smith Rowe as the true left winger, Aubameyang would shift left, Smith Rowe would drop into the midfield to pair with Ødegaard, and Saka would push more central. This also opened channels for both fullbacks to get involved down the flanks.
Versus Manchester City, we saw Saka tasked with playing that same role Smith Rowe played.
In the slideshow above we see a graphic that lays out the rotation the attack often tried to carry out, followed by multiple in-game visuals of the spaces that Saka took up.
Image number two is a great side-on visual of Saka (blue) dropping in line with Ødegaard on the second level to support Aubameyang who drifts further to left, while Tierney looks to get down the flank. We also see Pepe on the far right trying to get himself into a dangerous position. Comparatively, the fourth image is an example of this being carried out in Arsenal’s build-up phase of play where it was clear that Saka was tasked to assist in the transition work by making himself a clear and consistent option between the lines.
As a variant, the third image offers an example of the play building from the right. We can still see Aubameyang has shifted left, Saka has dropped and tucked himself in centrally, while Pepe occupies a much more right-center attacking position.
It’s a role that Smith Rowe succeeded at when it came to the attacking side, but when considered in tandem with the defensive responsibilities that stemmed from that side, the task at hand expands quite a bit. To take it one step further and consider why Saka is a better fit for that role than Pepe, we should consider where Pepe’s success sprung from on the left wing.
Much of Pepe’s success came from looking to get into that same tucked in left channel that Aubameyang occupies and push the backline between the center back and right back. This was easy to do and very possible with someone like Lacazette playing in the central role because it didn’t see the central striker and left winger looking to occupy the same spaces. Had Pepe been deployed on the left wing against Manchester City, you are looking at two attacking figures competing for the same space and running into one another, or you are asking Nicolas Pepe to drop deep and play in the same spaces with the same role Bukayo Saka took up.
Either option isn’t that ideal, nor conducive to Pepe’s success. Instead you place him on the right wing and give him the ability to tuck in centrally on the right side and help Arsenal present what almost looked like a 4-2-2-2 at times. What’s disappointing is the fact that Pepe was extremely quiet on the right when finally given that ability to be occupy very central spaces.
Deep lying transition help
With Arsenal’s clear intent to keep themselves defensively responsible — almost to a fault —they sat Granit Xhaka and Mohammed Elneny in front of that backline. The issue then became how Arsenal transition themselves from back to front in order to break the press, transition into the build-up and then attacking phases, and simply relieve the onslaught of pressure they were put under by City.
The first example comes off a goal kick but it’s pretty clear that Saka was asked to drop much deeper and help get Arsenal out. In blue we have Mohammed Elneny and Granit Xhaka, in yellow we have Saka and Ødegaard. On this particular play, Saka makes a darting run toward his own goal to help Arsenal get out from the back.
The second image is one that we saw earlier in the article, but shows Saka level with Tierney, Ødegaard, and Bellerin while Aubameyang has already come wide left. Saka presents himself as an option on that level and produces a passing triangle with Holding on the ball and Tierney on the wing. It also makes City’s midfield and backline make a decision.
One thing that many fans noticed at half time, and even full time, was that Ødegaard was struggling to get himself on the ball in the areas that Arsenal want him in to be effective. This of course was due in part to Arsenal’s offensive struggles, but it also was because of City’s defensive midfielder, Fernandinho.
Fernandinho was a menace for Arsenal and Ødegaard to deal with, but he isn’t capable of marking both Ødegaard and Saka. By having Saka show up between the lines, Fernandinho had to make a choice and communicate with the backline. This freed up Saka at times, it freed up Ødegaard, and it forced Pep to make a switch at halftime to dedicate Gundogan’s services on the left side. As Arsenal looked to split Ødegaard and Saka wide, left and right, Gundogan was made to drop deeper and keep tabs on Ødegaard while Fernandinho picked up Saka.
It was a good adjustment from Pep considering City had the lead, such is how the game works, but it was clear that Arteta had visions of Saka helping Arsenal’s transition play with two dedicated central midfielders in Elneny and Xhaka struggling to break out with the ball.
Again, when it comes to Pepe, you have to ask if that is a skill that he can offer from that left side for a full 90 minutes. Both wingers are tasked with coming back toward the ball and helping out, but that’s different than planting yourself in that space for a full 90 minutes.
It’s fair to argue or question whether Aubameyang’s presence up top is worthy of this amount of change, and uprooting two attacking players effectiveness just to include him. Aubameyang obviously didn’t make the change worthwhile, but Saka’s numbers were certainly one of the highlights of Arsenal’s rather tepid performance.
Saka had 3 shots, won 7 duels, blocked two shots, went 3/3 with his dribbles, won 3 fouls (most in the match), had a tackle and 2 recoveries. Unfortunately, Pepe and Aubameyang struggled quite a bit on their fronts.
However, if you consider the defensive ask, the role in the attack that runs close with how Smith Rowe has been deployed, and the intent to get Aubameyang into the attacking spaces that he thrives on — including his two goals against City in the FA Cup — then Saka’s profile and skill set does fit the bill quite a bit better than Nicolas Pepe has shown, even if Pepe has had success down the left wing.
I would even go as far as to suggest that this may not be the last time we see Saka rotate out to the right wing. If Arteta intends on fielding more sides with Smith Rowe and Ødegaard, then both players lose their natural rotation partner. This means, should Smith Rowe need a rest, and Arteta looks to continue with this 4-2-3-1/4-2-2-2 shape that includes three creative players behind a goalscorer, Saka could become someone that rotates with ESR quite frequently.
Only time will tell, and that also means Arsenal would need to win in the Europa League to keep their schedule tight with games, but at least we have a building block now to understand Saka’s role on on the right wing.
Did the decision make sense in your mind?
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