Bukayo Saka: Fullback or Winger?
Let’s be real here: no one grows up dreaming about playing fullback. It is simply not a very attractive position either on the pitch or in the public opinion. On the pitch, you’ve got to run more than anyone and contribute on both attacking and defending ends. Fail at any of those three aspects and you can’t have a normal day. A fullback is a defender and attacker at once and he must have the stamina, strength, skills and positioning to be able to pull off that role. With the new tactical trend set by Pep Guardiola of inverted fullbacks who have to play in the midfield to cover for counte-rattack situations, they have to be midfielders too.
If Gary Neville did not dream of becoming a fullback, then Bukayo Saka definitely doesn’t.
Saka is right. His training has mostly been as a winger. Whatever time he’s spent playing wingback for England’s youth is insignificant and not enough reason to see him as that.
Nowadays, though, Saka has spent more time playing fullback than winger. After the unfortunate injuries to Kolasinac and Tierney, he’s been shoehorned into that position and has played out of his mind, producing 5 assists in as many matches. While some may hastily attribute this to Arteta’s 2-3-5 system, it is obvious that Saka has been pure quality in the role.
Saka as a winger is also pure quality for someone who turned 18 in November. The Messi-esque goal against Frankfurt says as much. His performance at Old Trafford where he got an assist says as much. His League statistics at that position says as much — he has got 4 assists and no goals. His finishing ability says as much. He’s that guy who can get you goals and assists — the only problem is where would he be getting it from?
Ordinarily, his future is on the attacking wing. We have two capable leftbacks. Then, personally, he doesn’t want to be a leftback and his contract is close to running out. He also isn’t as defensively capable or aggressive as either Tierney or Kolasinac. The system has to be tweaked for him.
But the whispers from the Arsenal hierarchy and Colney Centre is that he’s better suited to fullback. His presence at fullback is stronger than at winger (perhaps only because he’s young). He has kinetic qualities, an ability to surge forward with the ball that very few defenders in the world can cope with. That quality is minimized in the final third where there is limited space to run in and where he’d quickly run into traffic. His dribbling in tight-spaces does not approach world-class or even Reiss Nelson level. For any winger at the very top of football (which is where Arsenal are, all things considered), that tight-space dribbling and coordination is very important. Leroy Sané and Raheem Sterling are world-class wingers because they possess the kinetic qualities Saka has as well as the close-control of Nicolas Pépé. When space opens up — they are dangerous. When space closes up — they are still dangerous. This is why Reiss Nelson is so well-regarded among trainers: he has those qualities, the raw profile of a world-class winger.
Playing at fullback would provide Saka with the space to display his kinetic brilliance. This can be very useful. A good example of this is Kolasinac who uses his physicality to surge past and lay across a cross. Saka is better at those aspects. He’s a better passer of the ball. A better crosser. More comfortable and confident on the ball. He can dribble himself out of high-pressure situations. And if you give him the time to think about his options — plenty of which he’ll get at fullback — Bukayo Saka can be devastating with his decision-making. Just ask Valentine Lazaro.
Most of those qualities are inbred. You can try to teach Kolasinac to do better at crossing or his passing or his decision-making but he’d only improve so much. These things come much more naturally to Bukayo Saka and if you train him further, then you arrive at the conclusion of the Arsenal training staff: Bukayo Saka has it easier becoming a world-class fullback than a world-class winger.
You also have to figure in the fact that Kolasinac is on high Bosman wages and could be moved on in the summer. If that happens, then Tierney and Saka will have a proper battle at fighting it out next season. That’s what you want from a competitive team, a team playing at the highest level of football. You want quality options from the bench and tight competition for starting spots.
At the end of the day, it seems more realistic that Saka will still have a run-in at that left-wing position when we finally decide that Aubameyang is better employed through the middle.
There’s not a lot of projected competition for that spot. Plus the contract situation means that Saka will get what he wants if he’s insistent enough.
At the end of the day, we have to realize that many of the best fullbacks were converted from more advanced positions. Trent Alexander-Arnold, Gareth Bale, Kieran Gibbs, Hector Bellerin, Patrice Evra, David Alaba. Saka might be the next illustrious name in this prestigious lineage of converted fullbacks and it would absolutely be worth a try.
A lot of wingers get converted into full/wing-backs, Jordi Alba being the best example, so why not Saka?
I guess a lot depends on Saka. Will he be vocal about wanting to play a certain position, like AMN, or will he be happy to change his position?
Not only is Saka our best LB be quite some distance, he’s only second to Robertson as the best LB in the league, and one of our most important players. I thought Martinelli was a our best prospect, but it’s Saka. His stats are incredible for someone so young, and playing out of position!
The truth is he will end up playing where he is most effective and is getting regular football, wherever that is. He may end up being the best left back in the world or not or he may end up being the best winger in the world or not. If the guy is playing his best football at left back let fate take its course. Saka and Auba on the left is a devastating combo, we haven’t got a better combo in this team, thats a fact.
I believe we have to use a proper 3-5-2 or 3-4-1-2 system with the right players for him and the team to excel in that formation like….
… only when the dedicated wingbacks are not available.
Apparently he wants to play as winger, but as it stands he’s been the best LB we’ve had in ages. If we want him to sign onto another contract I assume he will want guarantees of playing in his preferred position though. I very much like him where he is at the moment though.
But there is no space for him immediately at right wing as you can clearly see that Aubameyang and Martinelli are the managers preferred two. Arteta prefers Aubameyang on the wings because he doesn’t lose any goals the man scores from wherever. Martinelli is Aubameyang cover. I am begging blacka Pearl to believe in himself make left back his own and become part of a great team.
I don’t see him as good defensively around the box, especially in the air. He can make good tackles and interceptions, but he’s not that rock solid defensive presence we need. Call me old fashioned but I don’t want to see a racehorse being harnessed to the plough. We need the guy in the final third where he can hurt teams.
Ok, I will call you old fashioned. Iam olfashioned too and glad of it as we are both right about Saka. Spot on comments!
most modern fullbacks lack in the defensive side of the game. There are very few fullbacks that play so advance and also can put in a defensive performance. Also, his defending has been above average overall, especially for someone who has not played in this position and isn’t used to defending. He was sloppy in Everton game but that was not down to his defending, just poor decisions.
Our best LB is tierney because he has got it naturally to be one of the best.Saka has greatly impressed everyone in his new position but if he doesnt like it the consequences of trying to persist him with the LB role would be bad.But i do beleive that He sort of like the role in MA’s system because it allows him to go forward and protect him on counter attacks as xhaka covers.But some games will be tough and ask more of his defensive side in which he will have to show instincts of a defender.I am not saying his defensive side is bad but he needs to work on a few more things to be a top LB.
Robertson and arnorld are not top fullbacks because their defensive side is poor.Offensively brilliant
I dont see how Tierney is out best LB when he’s hardly kicked a ball for us and didn’t do anything impressive in the games he did play. I think he’ll come good, but the facts are that Saka has been the best LB we’ve had this season.
He was impressive in every game he played.The way he defends is superb and he contributes well offensively.His crosses are superb,he may not be tricky as saka but he gets the job done And if you are not impressed just watch how he held adama traore down.He can be a very good LB and even the best out there.Saka on the other hand has the same potential but he must make a decision first
Agree RSH, Saka has been our best left back, not only in fugures but ability and availability.
RHS you clearly did not watch the games I saw when Tierney was excellent.There really is not an issue .One terrific left back and one hugely talented left winger.Both of them should play when fit.