Did you ever see the movie Battle Royale? In the film, a class of middle school students are taken to an island and told to fight for the death with only the life of the last boy or girl standing to be spared. As the teenagers enter the island, they are all assigned a random weapon. Some students strike it lucky and are assigned a sword, a gun or even a bazooka. Others are handed a fish slice or a spoon.
What relevance does this have to football- or to Arsenal? Well, when evaluating players, I like to consider what their superpower is, what is their most elite attribute? Some players are quite flawed overall but have a compelling ‘superpower.’ Theo Walcott is the best example I can muster in the Arsenal context, an incredibly flawed technician but his pace and timing were his superpowers and they caused opponents conniptions despite his other flaws.
Granit Xhaka is another such example, the midfielder that Arsenal many fans can’t live with but Arsenal coaches can’t live without. The conveyor belt of passes from his left foot offer a constant supply line to the rest of the team. He holds the oxygen tank for the team and while he might occasionally plunge a knife into it, he still holds the oxygen tank and you have to be nice to that guy- even when he tells everyone to fuck off and refuses to apologise.
Pierre Emerick Aubameyang’s superpower isn’t even his finishing, really. It’s his ability to take up goal scoring positions on a regular basis. He doesn’t offer an awful lot else in truth, but as far as superpowers go, it’s at the bazooka end of the spectrum. Mohamed Elneny’s superpower is his stamina and ability to recycle possession over short distances. That’s not quite at the fish slice end of the weapon spectrum, but it’s probably equivalent to a bottle opener on your keyring- nice to have but not essential.
Arsenal’s decline over the last fifteen years or so (firstly from title contenders to a fringe member of the top four and, more recently, from a fringe but consistent member of the top four to upper midtable hopefuls) has seen them attract a lot of this type of player. Arsenal no longer attract the absolute top shelf talent, so they have to browse the next shelf down and that contains your top end products but maybe with some superficial damage to the packaging. (*Cough* Nicolas Pepe *cough*).
It’s why Arsenal have so, so many players that divide opinion so drastically. Ozil, Walcott, Giroud, even Mikel Arteta divided opinion as a player. All of these players have exceptionally useful attributes but they also came with marked downsides. All of which brings me onto Bukayo Saka.
If you asked me to describe Bukayo Saka as a player, I would honestly struggle. He doesn’t fit into the category of Arsenal player we have seen in the last 15 years or so. What is his biggest attribute? Maybe I should flip the question, what is he bad at? A list of his weaknesses could probably fit on the back of a postage stamp.
I would argue his biggest attribute is that he doesn’t have a big attribute, he’s just pretty good at everything which goes a long way to explaining why he has excelled in numerous positions. I think the most underrated attribute of any elite player is the ability to forge partnerships with teammates.
Thierry Henry formed great relationships with Bergkamp, Pires, Kanu, Wiltord and Vieira- all very different players. Fabregas struck up excellent relationships with Walcott, Hleb, Rosicky, Adebayor and van Persie. Some of these players were goal scorers that he provided for, others creative sounding boards that he combined with.
The ability to form partnerships requires a high level of footballing IQ for an attacking player because it relies on technical empathy- understanding and appreciating the attributes of other players and seeking to draw them out. Fabregas knew that Adebayor wanted the ball played to him at roughly chest height and that Walcott wanted it along the floor.
He appreciated that when he gave the ball to Alex Hleb, he should move to the edge of the box because Hleb would keep possession but then didn’t really want to make the final shot or pass. It’s football’s answer to extrasensory perception, the ability to process complex information based on who you are giving the ball to in a split second.
I am not necessarily comparing Saka to Fabregas as a creator but he does share this crucial skill of empathy. So far we have seen him strike up a great relationship with Gabriel Martinelli playing as a left wing-back because he quickly understood Martinelli’s desire to make out to in movements from the left of the attack.
He has excelled on the right flank recently playing one touch football with Smith Rowe and Lacazette. Pleasingly for Arsenal, Saka seems to understand this in both the creative and attacking sense. At West Brom, when he, Smith Rowe and Lacazette played one touch football on the edge of the Baggies area, he knew to continue his run into the area to help himself to a tap-in.
Likewise at St. Mary’s on Tuesday, Saka makes an excellent run that begs Lacazette to pass him the ball and he clearly has a picture of exactly how he is going to finish the chance before events unfold. Likewise, his assist for Lacazette later in that game demonstrated a similar ability to see pictures. He knew the space Lacazette had found at the back post would only close as the milliseconds ticked by, so he played it first time off his weak foot.
Unusually for a southpaw, Saka is comfortable on his right foot- which aids his ability to make quick decisions. I am convinced most Premier League players would not have made that pass to Laca first time off their weaker foot, I think the vast majority of players would instead try to get the ball onto their stronger foot and in doing so would cost their teammate an open goal.
Back in September, Arsene Wenger spoke about what he sees as the next development in football. “The next game changer is neuroscience. Why? Because we are at the end of the improvement of physical speed, the next step will be to improve the speed of decision making, the speed of execution, the speed of coordination and that’s where neuroscience will come in.”
I would argue that Saka is the poster boy for neuroscience in football. His talent was obvious from the outset but his end product is becoming more regular since Smith-Rowe loosened some of the hinges around Arsenal’s attack and a 19-year old with regular output is a rarity across the game. Bukayo Saka is a player for Arsenal fans to relish and enjoy and, in conclusion I guess, Bukayo Saka’s superpower is his brain.