When Bukayo Saka was subjected to a wave of racist abuse at the 2021 European Championships, it was unclear where his career would go from here. In 2023, the 21-year-old is one of the best players of his age – and an absolute top performer at Arsenal, who lead the Premier League. That’s what makes the Englishman so strong.
A missed penalty can change many a career – especially if it happens in a big game. Bukayo Saka, Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford may have had one of the toughest days of their careers in the summer of 2021. They all represented England on penalties against Italy in the final of the European Championship – and missed.
They could have become legends. England have never been so close to winning their second tournament since the 1966 World Cup, but the reaction of many English fans was much more bitter. The three players were subjected to racist abuse both at Wembley Stadium and on social media. A low point that did not do justice to their athletic performance, but above all to them as people.
It is all the more remarkable how Saka in particular has developed at Arsenal FC since then. Even back then, many experts celebrated him as one of the greatest talents, but he fought back as if the events of the EM summer had hardly affected him. It felt like he was getting better and better from week to week, from game to game.
Today, at just 21, he’s not just a regular at the Premier League leaders, he’s also a top performer – and one of the reasons why the Gunners have experienced a rapid rise this season. So it’s no wonder that Manchester City should be very interested in signing the flexible outside player.
Bukayo Saka: The natural talent from Arsenal FC
Saka is a natural when it comes to reading game situations in the shortest amount of time while also reacting to them correctly. One of his greatest strengths is his pre-orientation. He often has his head up and thus gets an overview of the distances between opponents and open spaces.
Statistically, he ranks in the top 8 percent of all attacking midfielders and wingers when it comes to making touches in the opposition box (6.46 per 90 minutes over the past 365 days). He’s also the recipient of 13.19 progressive passes per 90 minutes, placing him in the top 6 percent in the world for that statistic.
The passer is often praised for vertical and line-breaking passes. Without players like Saka, who always position themselves correctly between the lines, these passes would hardly be possible. The Englishman is a blessing for Mikel Arteta in that regard. Especially since these numbers only form the basis for what everyone regularly sees from Saka: speed dribbles, goals, assists, runs in depth. Due to his strong pre-orientation, he gains an advantage here.
This season in the Premier League, Saka has the sixth most actions leading to a deal (SCA – Shot Creating Actions) – averaged over 90 minutes. 4.8 times a dribble, pass, own finish or foul on him results in a teammate’s shot. The leader is Kevin De Bruyne (6.54), at Arsenal only Martin Odegaard is ahead of him (5.08). Saka, together with the Norwegian, is the engine of the Gunners offensive.
Premier League: Players with the most actions leading to a deal
Goal contributions per 90 minutes
SCA per 90 minutes
Kevin de Bruyne (Man City)
Riyadh Mahrez (Man City)
Martin Odegaard (Arsenal)
Kieran Trippier (Newcastle)
Bruno Fernandes (Man United)
Bukayo Saka (Arsenal)
Bukayo Saka: That’s why Arsenal’s top scorer is on Man City’s radar
With 16 goals involved, he is Arsenal’s top scorer in all competitions. Its flexibility is particularly remarkable. In his career he has played as a left-back in a back three system and on both wings. What is striking is that he likes to move into the center from the outside.
A player who would be a perfect match for Pep Guardiola? In fact, the Catalan has a history of using systems designed to give the wingers space for one-on-one actions through surprise shifts. But Saka also feels comfortable in the half-space and so he is probably not only of interest to Guardiola, but to almost all clubs.
The native of London only has a contract with Arsenal until 2024. With his current performance curve, the Gunners could hardly afford to keep him for another year unless he renews the stint soon.
Bukayo Saka: Where is the next step?
Since the European Championship, Saka has proven that he is an outstanding player – and he can become great. Even if the development of young players depends on many factors, it’s no longer a steep assumption that one day he’ll end up at an absolute top club and assert himself there.
It probably only depends on the “when” and less on the “if”. And the timing must be well chosen. Because with all the legitimate hymns of praise, there is still room for improvement. For example, when it comes to consistency within a game.
He only wins 35.8 percent of his one-on-one duels, which is an expandable quota for an offensive player of his quality. It’s not uncommon for a young player to have a relatively wide spread between good and not-so-good moves. Precisely for this reason, the timing of the next career step should be carefully considered.
At Arsenal he is not only part of an impressive development, but one of the faces of this young and up-and-coming team. In this environment it would be possible to develop further without the great pressure. It would be different with a move to Manchester City. In addition to a high fee, there would also be new expectations.
But anyone who has seen how Saka reacted to his missed penalty and all the mean reactions from many fans in 2021 should have no doubts that he can have a great future. If he orients himself as cleverly as he does on the pitch, nothing stands in his way.