Gunner Thoughts

To Address the Saka-Foul Issue, They Have to Look at the WHOLE Picture

As Arsenal try to shed light on the abuse Saka receives, it seems many are stuck with foul-occurrence tunnel vision. You have to look at the WHOLE picture.

Xhaka may be labeled “The Terminator” for his machine-like ability to both never go away and never miss a game, but it’s Saka who seems to be made of titanium. At the very least, his ankles are.

He took another absolute beating against Aston Villa and still managed to work six shots, complete the most dribbles (4), score a tremendous goal, and help lead Arsenal to a much-needed win and three points.

The fact is, this is a story we have seen every week, twice a week, all season. Defenders can’t deal with him, there’s rotational fouling, beatings, limited action taken on his behalf, and he leads Arsenal to a win as one of the best players on the pitch.

“He’s fine – he got kicked quite a lot again,” said Arteta after the match when asked if Saka was hurt, “but he’s going to have to deal with that, not every week, but every three days. Sometimes in training as well. It’s his game – teams are not stupid and they want to stop him. We need to protect him.”

But repeating this — week after week — seems to be a lot easier to say than do. The question is, why?

Yesterday, Tifo football and JJ Bull put out a video that asked the question: Are referees failing to protect Saka by not punishing these fouls?

Now, let’s first say, I love Tifo Football, the content they make, and JJ Bull. If you don’t follow them but love football, you’re missing out. I constantly am learning from them, and even here, I can appreciate some of what they bring up. The problem with this analysis is — just like Arsenal fan’s issues with refs’ views of Saka and his protection — it fails to account for the full picture.

Right off the bat, we are starting with the statistical number of fouls that have been committed against Bukayo Saka, and noting that in the grand scheme of the league, he is not the most fouled player. Statistically true.

We then talk about his targeting and chalk it up to him being amazing, a winger, and therefore someone on the ball, dangerous, and looking to carry. Again, true. If you look on the list shown of “most fouled players” when shown you will see names like Grealish, Zaha, Tarore, Ayew, Bowen, Toney. All players that are either wingers, in the dog-fight trenches, or both.

To double down on that argument point, JJ moves onto Saka’s physique and player profile. “Incredibly strong”, “deceptively quick”, “close control to draw in defenders”. The trifecta of a foul-drawing player, he says, right? Right. But wrong in Saka’s case because, as he says, he’s so strong he “rides these challenges and keeps going”. Again, true.

Anyone that has watched Saka for more than 10 minutes will have seen Saka’s incredible ability to do just that and turn it into something dangerous for Arsenal. His ability to spin defenders and jink beyond them after taking contact is an elite part of his game and he does it better than most.

Despite these true statements, the problems with this video are already both glaringly obvious to an Arsenal fan AND just getting started.

It’s at this point in which the video simultaneously compliments Saka and lays the blame at his feet.

This video is argues that, because Saka rides the challenge and stays on his feet, while his counterparts like Grealish take the contact and go down, he doesn’t get the fouls, doesn’t draw yellow cards, and doesn’t get protection. The compliment is, “he doesn’t get that protection but he gets to create so many chances for Arsenal because it’s not a dead ball restart”?

The culmination of this argument and video, more or less, seems to be: Saka rides challenges and is so skilled that his reward is dangerous chances and Arenal getting to play their fluid football. But, he doesn’t draw enough fouls (1.81 per 90 in 2022/23), and the ones he does are a few, softer nibbles and bites at his ankles or attempted tackles because he’s dribbling, therefore, it’s hard to really say defenders should be getting more yellow cards.

And HERE is my biggest problem with that, and someone like JJ Bull of all people viewing the situation that way: that is EXACTLY how referees are viewing it and what’s leading to frustration from Arsenal fans and dangerous moments for Saka. This view doesn’t take into account the entire picture and the biggest clue should have been all the compliments you gave of Saka taking so much contact and beating so many tackles but only drawing a measly 1.81 fouls per 90 minutes!

What this suggests is Saka is being punished for staying on his feet and he’s being put in physical danger for doing it. He’s being punished for the rotational hacks and nibbles that teams use on him, and as a product of being double-teamed every time he touches the ball. He’s being punished for Arsenal swarming to loose balls and winning advantage situations that aren’t called fouls. And he’s being punished for his roughly 4 take-on attempts per game because, hey, not every time can be foul, right? And isn’t that just a bit mental to punish a player for?

Essentially promoting players go down at contact or dive for the sake of both team and physical well being?

Because here is the big picture. Saka IS a tidy, evasive, explosive dribbler, and a player that draws so much contact and innumerable physical challenges that aren’t being accounted for in the FULL picture. Players are booked all the time after an advantage is called and played out. And just because a whistle is not blown and a foul is not statistically tallied, does not mean there was not one committed.

There have been numerous matches that leave you wondering if the ref has just lost the picture because Saka has drawn three or four fouls, ridden the challenges of 3 or 4 more, had advantage played after taking a hefty challenge, and not gotten the whistle to go his way on a few ‘let it flow’-style moments. But the blown whistles and the advantage calls have to be tallied together. They do. Advantage or not, they are fouls on him and whether intentionally part of the opposition’s game plan or simply because Saka is that good, it doesn’t matter.

But people in the league are failing to pull this whole picture together, and you can almost see why – it’s more difficult than just counting statistical fouls where the evidence lives on in unanimous fashion. In the video above, JJ says, he watched all the fouls on Saka in Wyscout. Good research, but it’s incomplete. Unless you are watching all the non-calls, the advantages, the rotations of contact, you’re not completing the picture. But to argue that, you have to not only point to the contact, but also convince people it’s a foul even without a whistle and statistical occurrence.

On if Saka needs more protection:
We will discuss that. We will look at the images again and report it if it’s necessary.

File the report, Mikel, and keep filing them, game after game after game. The picture has to be looked at comprehensively. It’s the occurrences that aren’t compiled in Wyscout because it’s flagged as a foul that color in the lines. The kid needs and deserves protection for something that is getting out of hand.

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One reply on “To Address the Saka-Foul Issue, They Have to Look at the WHOLE Picture”

Great counter argument and so true. It’s absolutely correct to have the complete picture and include those fouls that got away because advantage was played, and for the referee to then dish out the cards when play has stopped. Saka needs referees to be strong in allowing the game to flow, allowing the advantages to be played, because Saka does ride the fouls and continues to play which is why he is such a phenomenal player and creates so many goal scoring and assist moments in games. Grealish could learn how to become a far better player if he watched how Saka plays, but I fear both his ego and intelligence won’t allow him to figure it out.

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