The Future of Arsenal: Bukayo Saka

Saving the best until last, if the Future of Arsenal rests on the shoulders of any single player, it rests on those of West London prodigy Bukayo Saka.


It doesn’t rest on the shoulders of an individual player of course. The success of any elite football team relies on the strength of its collective. Its strongest components rely on the strength of its foundation. But if we are ranking those strongest components, you will have a tough time arguing Bukayo Saka doesn’t sit comfortably at the very top of that particular pile.


In this series we’ve looked at Gabriel Martinelli, Martin Ødegaard and Emile Smith Rowe. Each young star presents their own profile and strengths, each pointing in their own way towards the positive direction Arsenal FC have taken under manager Mikel Arteta.


This Total Player Report will examine Saka’s strengths, illustrate the player he is, and document the reasons why so many people in the world of football (myself definitely included) are so excited about the player Bukayo Saka currently is and can become in the future.


Positional game and style of play


Bukayo Saka has been involved in the Arsenal first-team squad since 16 years old. He has been a first-team regular since 17 years old. Now 20 (to date), Saka has passed 100 first-team appearances, starting 100 games.


Across the three seasons in which Saka has played a significant role in the Arsenal senior squad, he has covered roles in a number of different positions.


For Arsenal Saka has featured as an inverted right wing-back, a wide left wing-back, a left and right sided wide forward or winger, a left and right sided attacking midfielder. He demonstrates the ability to apply his skill set to a range of different roles and responsibilities across sometimes quite vastly different areas of the pitch.


Saka’s seasonal heatmaps illustrate well this versatility. For someone so young, Bukayo Saka has already undergone a quite intensely diverse positional education at the elite level.


Saka all competition heatmaps seasons 2019/20, 2020/21, 2021/22 (Wyscout)


He hasn’t been protected positionally by his manager, rather Saka’s manager has asked him to adapt and apply his profile across different positions. This likely aids greatly Saka’s tactical effectiveness when settled in his preferred, more natural offensive roles.


Bukayo Saka is best defined within an offensive scope, he is naturally an attacking player and his strengths are found within those attributes, but he is also a very tactically astute and positionally aware player. Saka defends well through offensive areas – high pressing, opposition half recoveries – and he attacks well through defensive areas – middle third turnovers, defensive third counter-attacking.


Dribbling, ball control and progressive running


In simple terms, Saka is a mid-volume, high-accuracy dribbler. Moving the ball through high value areas, breaking lines and progressing the ball while in possession of it is a key part of Saka’s attacking game. He is very strong in this area.



Bukayo Saka has excellent balance, he maintains good control over his touches to commit defenders and uses well-timed, intelligent close control to move around, beyond and clear of them.


He is fast over longer distances, there is a definite natural athlete in Saka, but his strength in beating his markers 1 v 1 comes more through deft control and intelligent use of his body than it does through raw pace and athleticism.


In competitive fixtures across the past four seasons – equal to just short of 10,000 minutes on the pitch – Bukayo Saka averages 5.4 take-on attempts per 90-minute appearance with 55% success.


There has been a steady increase in dribbles attempted since Saka’s big breakthrough season in 2019 – 4.0, 57% in 2019/20, 5.3, 51% in 2020/21, 6.2, 60% in the current 2021/22 campaign.


The increase in the number of dribbles attempted can likely be explained by Saka cementing his place in the Arsenal attacking unit – rather than filling-in in defensive roles as he did early on – and having more freedom to attempt high risk movements in offensive areas. Saka maintaining between 50%-60% success in his take-on attempts is testament to how good he is at this side of his game. He excels in this respect.


For the sake of comparison, Lionel Messi is completing 61% of his 7.5 take-on attempts per 90 in 2021/22.


By using his strength, speed, level of control, situational awareness and intelligence in decision making, Saka is able to regularly find spaces in tightly packed areas in or around the final third and opposition penalty area.


He is an expert at receiving the ball in open wide areas before moving through the right half-space by directly attacking the full-backs and opponent backline.


This is a great benefit for his team when facing both compact mid to low blocks as well as counter-attacking against more aggressive opponents.


Shooting, finishing, the scoring of goals


Bukayo Saka is steadily proving himself to be a confident and competent finisher. For senior appearances in competitive games for Arsenal and England, Saka has scored 26 goals from 196 shots, 41% of which were on target. To gain a good idea of the way Saka scores his goals there is no better way than to have a look at them.



Saka favours his left foot, and he strikes the ball very cleanly with that stronger side. He exerts great control over his shooting in particular. Saka likes to strike his shots low and with power, wide of the goalkeeper. There is a combination of shot power coming through repeatably clean technique and accuracy through full control over the shot – again helped a lot by Saka’s balance and biomechanical control.


Composure is a key component in the Bukayo Saka style of finishing chances. He sets himself, gets his body shape right, and commits fully to the shot without hesitation. It’s a style of shooting that lends itself really well to repeatable accuracy. It’s not necessarily about high volume, he has averaged only 1.7 shots per 90 minutes across that sample of 10,000 minutes, what it is about is high accuracy.


Bukayo Saka shot maps seasons 2021/22, 2020/21, 2019/20 (Wyscout)


From his shot maps across the past three seasons, we can see Saka favours taking his shots from inside the penalty area. His shots from the left side of the area result in goals slightly more frequently, and his accuracy is marginally better from this side, but there is plenty of cause to believe Saka is strong in his shooting across all channels.


He shows a good understanding of movement into and around central spaces – he has scored a number of headed goals and close-range tap-ins as a result of occupying more typically traditional centre-forward positions.


Saka is comfortable finishing his chance from wide areas having received and progressed the ball himself in an earlier phase, and he is also comfortable receiving the ball much closer to goal, in a much more central poacher’s area as a late receiving option. The latter is especially true where Saka presents himself as the final pass receiver very close to goal after neat, quick passing moves more recently for Arsenal.


Saka’s goal output has steadily increased across his three campaigns featuring regularly for the Arsenal senior team. This can be as much explained by Saka’s maturation process and the way that the intricacies and nuances involved in scoring goals – timing, handling pressure, composure, the perfection of technique, etc. – develop with age, as it can be explained by the fact that the young, fresh Arsenal team is gradually becoming more settled and comfortable handling Mikel Arteta’s tactical demands.


It is likely, in my opinion, that Bukayo Saka’s goal numbers will continue to rise as long as he continues to find the same kind of platform he has so far with Arsenal FC. What Saka brings is great energy, intelligence, technique and self-control, it is up to his team to supply the foundation to properly utilise it.


Passing, crossing and the creation of chances


The third part in the triumvirate of the typical forward is chance creation. And in Bukayo Saka’s case this can most easily be separated into two main aspects: through passes and crosses. Both aspects highlight really well Saka’s use of wide channels and half-spaces. There is a valid argument that this aspect – chance creation rather than his dribbling or his shooting – is what best defines Saka’s game.




For Saka’s through balls, we’re back in the realm of low volume, high accuracy.


Saka plays through the half-spaces, especially when he’s on the right side of attacking midfield in Arteta’s more recent 4-2-3-1 at Arsenal. We’ve already seen his ability to break through lines into those high-quality areas with his dribbling and he is equally as adept at doing so with short passes.


Across competitive appearances for Arsenal and England senior teams Saka averages 2.4 passies into the final third per 90 with 73% accuracy, and 2.6 passes into the opposition penalty area per 90 with 52% accuracy. Low volume, very high accuracy.


Playmaking through creative passing isn’t really happening often enough for that aspect to define the player, but Saka demonstrates consistently a degree of accuracy and execution to suggest it is something he is very good at.


His style is calm and composed. Saka favours short passing between markers, usually to release a runner on the outside. His high accuracy is explained by the fact that Saka isn’t taking on a lot of opportunities to break lines with his through balls, he plays the pass when the pass is the best option. With Saka it’s not a case of high risk, high reward playmaking; rather it’s about making a decision that is likely to move his team forward. Saka is a thoughtful, considered playmaker.


The through balls mostly cover Saka’s work in deeper, more typically attacking midfield areas. For the meat of his creative work, we have to look at how Saka operates as a wide forward or more traditional winger. Crossing as a method of creation is what covers many of Saka’s actual goal assists.



The same composure we see in Saka’s shooting and in Saka’s short passing is evident too in his crossing. Saka works himself into high value positions and commits to his crossing with comfortable technique and that same excellent balance and form.


There were plenty of missed opportunities here, and most of them were missed not because of the quality of the delivery but despite it.


Across that sample of minutes, Saka averages  0.19 expected assists and 0.18 actual assists per 90. For the sake of context, Trent Alexander-Arnold – currently one of the world’s most effective creative wide players – has averaged 0.25 expected assists and 0.28 actual assists per 90-minute appearance across senior appearances (around 19000 minutes).


Saka currently averages a little over 3 crosses per 90 with 33% successfully finding a target. To stick with the Alexander-Arnold comparison – useful for getting a feel of the top end of the spectrum – the Liverpool right back-cum-midfield playmaker averages 5.5 crosses per 90 with, again, 33% accurate.


It’s a little too early to come to any concrete conclusions about Saka’s creative capacity but he is showing signs that he can be a real force in that aspect.


Saka has all the ingredients of a great creator – the vision to see and decide on a pass or cross, the understanding of proper body shape and technique to consistently and cleanly execute them, but most of all Saka has a maturity that belies his age which enables him to compose himself and make the right call repeatedly.


It’s the composure that really stands out for me. Many talented technical young players can cross or pass the ball well, but not many can keep their head under the kind of pressure you find in offensive areas at the top end of the senior game and consistently make the right decisions. Saka has shown that he can do this regularly enough for it to be a steady and reliable part of his profile.


Bukayo Saka


When you consider how young 20 years is in terms of elite football development, Saka is phenomenal.


He is already not only competing with players in their physical and technical primes, but he is also beginning to stand out among them. Saka demonstrates a level of technical aptitude that comes so naturally and so comfortably to a player who had such limited exposure to senior football before showcasing that ability, it is simply special. This is a very special young player.


Saka manages to marry technical intelligence with athleticism and balance. He is brave in his approach to high-risk situations and clever in his patience and composure to decide on the right course of action. He is a high accuracy, high output attacker. He scores goals and he creates goals (literally – 20 goals and 23 assists for Arsenal to date), and dealing regularly in this currency is how the great attackers tend to separate themselves from the good ones.


Saka right now possesses all the ingredients he needs to be a stand-out Premier League and European caliber attacker, considering he still has 3-4 years of solid development ahead of him, it is difficult to put a ceiling on his future potential. He has played 120 times for Arsenal, another 14 times for his country. He performed well in a majority of those games.


Of all the Future of Arsenal players I’ve profiled Bukayo Saka is the one that I find most difficult to plot his future path. All four have the potential to be top players in their positions, some are already knocking on that door. Some have the potential to be world-leading players, in spells they occasionally look like they already are. But in Saka, Arsenal have a player who demonstrates a level of excellence with such consistency so uncommon for someone his age, it is difficult for me to rule out him becoming one of the very greats.


There is a long way to go and many obstacles to overcome, but if over the next few years Bukayo Saka maintains his current trajectory, and really just maintains the level of performance he has for the past 18-24 months, he is going to be within a very select, elite group of under-23 players in world football.


Unless otherwise credited, The videos used in this analysis belong to relevant license holders. the tactical times do not claim to own any of the visual or audio media presented here. This analysis was created under Fair Use (17 U.S.C. § 107) and may not be copied, redistributed, edited or altered without the express permission of the copyright holder.