Bukayo Saka is a marked man. The sight of the 21-year-old crumpled to the ground after the latest grueling challenge is becoming a worryingly familiar sight.
Given Saka’s talent and threat, some degree of physicality is inevitable. “The better the players, the bigger the target because people try to find ways to stop him,” says manager Mikel Arteta. But it’s also a curse: Saka has already been sent off for one game this season, against Leeds. The fear is that if he continues to endure heavy challenges, more absences will follow.
Saka will form a big part of England manager Gareth Southgate’s plans this winter. The issue is pertinent to him too: one bad challenge could knock the winger out of the tournament.
According to Opta, Arsenal have won more fouls in the final third than any other team in the Premier League this season (40). Surprisingly few, however, have been awarded in Saka.
In all areas of the field, Saka has picked up a total of 19 fouls this season. It is Arsenal’s second-highest tally, but exactly half of the 38 fouls committed against striker Gabriel Jesus. On the other side of the coin, only three players in the league have committed more fouls than Jesus (24). The Brazilian’s taste for the physical side of the game is evident.
Saka has been fouled approximately 1.5 times per 90 minutes. In the context of the Premier League, this is not particularly remarkable.
That, Arsenal fans will no doubt attest, is part of the problem. There is a growing feeling that Saka is not sufficiently protected by the officials, evidenced by the fact that while Saka himself has picked up three yellow cards this season, only one has been issued for a player guilty of fouling in the England international. The problem is more the free throws he’s not getting, rather than the free throws he’s getting.
Arsenal and Crystal Palace players clash after Bukayo Saka is fouled (Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)
“We need to talk about Saka,” Ian Wright said last week. “The man is suffering in pieces… we need to start protecting these players.”
Arteta is clearly reluctant to talk too much about the opposition or the referees. In a public forum, he prefers to focus on what his own team can do. Speaking ahead of Arsenal’s game against Wolves last week, he suggested there were “tactical” improvements the team could make to help provide protection for Saka.
“It’s about the timing, the decision-making, the space you’ve created before that action and the understanding and knowledge of what’s going to happen before it happens,” he said. “Sometimes (we can improve) the type of ball we give him and when we give him certain balls.”
Understandably, Arteta was not too keen on divulging the details of his plans. To understand how the Spaniard might intend to handle the situation, it is useful to speak to a coach who has been in a similar position before.
Saka is not alone in receiving unwanted attention from opposition defenders. Keith Millen served as assistant manager and interim manager for four years at Crystal Palace. In this period, he worked closely with Wilfried Zaha, the most fouled player in Premier League history.
Matteo Guendouzi tackles Wilfried Zaha in rugby (Photo: Nigel French/PA Images via Getty Images)
It can be related to Arteta’s reluctance to call out officials or the opposition. “It’s a risk,” says Millen. “The more you stand out and the more it is talked about, the more the opposition will look at it. The more I could get into the player’s head.”
This last point brings up a key part of it all: what is the attitude of the players to the buffets they receive?
“Wilf really enjoys physical contact,” says Millen. “He’s a better player when the defender gets close and tries to be aggressive, because he’s a fantastic athlete and very strong. The more physical they become, the better they usually become. It would be a challenge for him: ‘You can do whatever you want, I’ll still beat you.’
“Saka is a slightly different type of player – he probably nicks the ball because he’s very quick with his feet. He engages the defender, he moves away, and that’s where he’s going to get a lot of contact. Wilf is more about one-on-one contact, while Saka perhaps handles the ball quicker.
Millen makes an interesting point about style: Zaha gets really close to his man and is happy to roll and fight with them to get away. Saka is also happy for his marker to adjust, but he tends to move faster. This can lead to him being caught.
But what can be done about it? Saka’s style is partly what makes him effective. His ability to draw the defender in and then dribble is what makes him such an effective attacking weapon for Arsenal and England.
“Sometimes it can help mix up the player’s game a little bit more,” says Millen. “We’d say to Wilf, ‘Instead of trying to hit a man, maybe go over and move. If the defender gets really tight, can you bounce it off someone and then get back to it? We worked on that with him in training.”
And what about Arteta’s comments about how the team could help the situation tactically?
“When you have a player as dangerous as Zaha or Saka, teams will often double up instantly,” says Millen. “Then it’s a case of looking at the bigger picture, because if they’re doubling down, there’s got to be room somewhere else.”
Arsenal have started to use Ben White’s overlapping runs to help Saka. Sending White to the outside forces the defender out of Saka, giving him more room to maneuver.
In the recent win over Nottingham Forest, Gabriel Martinelli made an early pass to Saka on the wing.
White’s overrun meant that Renan Lodi had to drop back, and this gave Saka the space to focus on Martinelli to score.
“Then there’s the type of ball he’s getting,” continues Millen. “Are you giving him passes where you almost invite the defender to dive? Can you be more specific about where you’re going? Are you on the safe side? Do you take some weight off the pass so you’re not giving him problems controlling the ball? If his first touch has to be to control the ball, then you’re inviting the tackle.”
Here’s an example from the same game against Forest.
The ball has been played to Saka in a narrow corridor between the opposing defender and the touchline. It has nowhere to go, and Lodi is effectively invited to shut it down. If the ball had been played inside Saka, on the left foot, he might have been able to catch the ball on the move driving upfield. In short, this was one of several challenges that forced the replacement of an injured Saka.
“Timing and decision-making are also important. Saka might be short to receive, but maybe he doesn’t actually want the ball there, he wants to spin behind to receive, so he runs to the ball instead of always running with it.
Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini fouls England midfielder Saka during the Euro 2020 final (Photo: Laurence Griffiths/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Although he is unlikely to admit it during a press conference, Arteta may also ask Saka’s teammates to help manage the situation in a more cynical way. “We talk a lot about trying to protect Wilf with referees as a team,” Millen admits. “If it’s always Wilf protesting, he’ll probably end up getting a booking. We’ve talked about collectively avoiding the referee to make sure Wilf has the right protection. You’d make sure different players ask the referee, ‘How many times?’ ‘”.
Arsenal are still a young team, learning the art of the game. Perhaps in the coming months we will see them rally around Saka more to put more pressure on the refs.
Saka’s 14 Premier League appearances have produced a solid return of four goals and six assists. For now, at least, he continues to act despite having suffered severe attacks. The reason he’s getting so much attention is clear: the opposition is scrambling to stop him.
(Top photo: James Williamson – AMA/Getty Images)