There has been a huge amount of revisionist hindsight amongst the Arsenal fanbase this week after Bukayo Saka’s stunning performance at left back against Newcastle. Suddenly, everybody had always wanted the young England International played there in Kieran Tierney’s injury absence and had Arteta played him there the previous Thursday, Arsenal might still be in the Europa League. Which is slightly odd, as whilst some agreed when I suggested this tactical move throughout April, far more were set against it. The common reaction seemed to be that I was mad to want our best attacking player consigned to the defence, and that Arteta should play Cedric there.
In all honesty, I was never suggesting that Arteta should look to permanently switch Saka to left back, but in the short-term he should do so, not only for the balance of the team, to allow Xhaka back into central midfield, but also to allow him to play 3 of Martinelli, Smith Rowe, Pepe and Odegaard behind the striker. (This was all in my column after the first leg defeat to Villareal.) The point I felt many were either missing or forgetting was that Tierney, in that very role, had been integral to our best attacking displays during the season. A glance at any heat map for the young Scot would illustrate just how much he had been advanced and thus proved that playing Saka there would not have limited his creative attacking threat.
Sadly, the debate for Arsenal, is now irrelevant, as we are out of Europe, limping to the conclusion of a disappointing (yes, hardly hyperbolic,) Premier League campaign, with only a stressful summer of transfer rumour and angst to look forward to. However, I am an Arsenal fan, who also loves England, and wants our players to grace the 3 Lions shirt. I am aware not all my peers will share this view and would sooner see Bukayo Saka well rested after a season where he has played far more football than he or we expected.
With my England hat on as we are fast approaching the time for Southgate to announce his squad, I truly believe, with or without my red and white spectacles that Arsenal’s player of the season should be firmly in the mix and the left back cameo, will have enhanced, rather than hindered his chances. Arsenal fans, myself included want to see Saka on the flank damaging the opposition but I think even the most ardent Gunner, might have to accept as an outright wide attacker the competition for our young talisman is fierce. Southgate has the likes of Sterling, Foden, Rashford, Sancho, Grealish and even a revitalised Lingard perhaps to consider.
Southgate though, as we know has utilised Saka at left back and left wingback in the past and the fact that he obviously wants to be able to switch tactically between a back four and back three must work in our player’s favour. England managers over time have always values top quality utility players who can comfortably operate at the highest level in more than one position. The likes of Hodge, Milner, Fenwick, Hargreaves have all proved invaluable on the big stage and let us not forget that Southgate deployed a right footed Ashley Young at left wingback in the last World Cup.
Without Saka in the recent matches the England boss had a good look at Ben Chilwell and Luke Shaw, but I believe the Arsenal youngster has advantages over both. Chilwell, who I admire, is not being consistently selected over Alonso for Chelsea who operate with a back three and Luke Shaw, whilst having a superb season, has rarely played as a wingback with his club using him in a back four. Bukayo Saka offers Southgate the ability to not only cover both roles with equal aplomb, perhaps more consistency in attacking threat and the trump card that he can move roles on the pitch to a more attacking role with ease.
Whist Saka may not be aa guaranteed starter by any means, with the ability to probably select 26 players to include him seems as they say, a ‘no brainer’. Southgate may well have a better left winger, right winger, left back and left wingback, but he certainly does not have anyone who can slot in from the start of during a match, or indeed play more than one role within 90 minutes.
For Bukayo Saka, I sincerely hope he is rewarded with selection for the Euros, because whilst so many of his senior Arsenal colleagues have let him down, but he has never let himself, his teammates, or his supporters down.
Bukayo, I salute you and hope to see you pull on that Three Lions shirt come June.
This is the full unedited version of yesterday’s Sun Fan Column.
Passionate fifty-something Arsenal supporter who has been making the journey to N5 regularly since the early 1980s – although his first game was in 1976. Always passionate when talking about The Arsenal, Dave decided to send a guest blog to Gunnersphere in the summer of 2011 and has not stopped writing about the Gunners since.
He set up his own site – 1 Nil Down 2 One Up – in February 2012, which he moved on in 2016 to concentrate on freelance writing and building Gunners Town, which he launched with Paul in 2014.
The objective of GT was to be new and fresh and to give a platform for likeminded passionate Arsenal fans wishing to write about their team. Dave still of course, writes for the site himself and advises the ever-changing writing crew.