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.