Bukayo Saka’s meteoric rise in the past 18 months has been a huge bright spark in a turbulent period for Arsenal, with the teenager earning his stripes under Unai Emery and becoming a star since Mikel Arteta’s reign began.
On the field and off it, the England international is a vital cog in the Gunners machine – with faith shown in the 19-year-old by handing him the iconic number seven shirt and a lucrative long-term contract.
Saka‘s relationship with fellow Hale End graduate Emile Smith Rowe, who has earned his breakthrough in the side this term, provides further room for encouragement.
One major concern, however, is the risk of burnout, something which was addressed by Arteta prior to Sunday’s defeat against Manchester City.
“I think we have to protect him and keep the extractions where they should be, but I’m not going to put a brake on his development or how much he can do week in, week out. We have to support him and give him the best possible advice all the time, and then manage his minutes so he can maintain this level,” he told reporters.
“It is (difficult) at the moment because he’s been a real threat. He’s involved in a lot of goals all the time and his consistent performances make him a starter obviously. So it’s a fine balance, but at the same time he’s 19 years old and we have to protect him.”
It’s clear that Arteta knows Saka must be carefully managed and his importance cannot be ignored, though the stats raise concerns on Arsenal’s reliance on Saka, regardless of how exciting they are for a player of his age.
This season, Saka has contributed five goals and two assists in the Premier League, numbers that should improve further as he develops. Throw in the seven times he’s been involved in the build-up to goals and the figure of contributions rises to 14.
Given the fact Arsenal have scored just 31 goals in the Premier League this season, it means Saka has been involved in almost 50% of them and the record of results this season without Saka is also cause for concern.
Admittedly, it’s a small sample of results to take data from as there are only four Premier League matches where he hasn’t been a starter. Nevertheless, the only victory from those games came on the opening weekend against Fulham – with draws against Manchester United and Leeds along with defeat to Liverpool the only other games where Saka has not been in the starting line-up.
In fact, the only time Saka has not been in the matchday squad at all since early December 2019 was for the goalless draw against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side, where he was absent due to a minor hip injury.
Of all outfield players, only Hector Bellerin – six years his senior has played more minutes (1913) than Saka (1866) in the Premier League.
And of outfielders aged 21 and under this season, only Wolves’ Pedro Neto (2077) has been on the pitch more than the Arsenal teenager, with a sizeable drop-off then to Ethan Ampadu in third (1512).
That is an awful lot of football for a teenager to play at this level, particularly as it has come during an unprecedented period where there has been extremely little time for recovery between matches.
When you throw in the fact Saka is likely to feature in England’s European Championship campaign this summer and the World Cup next year, it’s difficult to see where exactly Saka will get time to catch his breath and any injuries that are suffered now could be catastrophic later in his career.
It’s something that has been witnessed previously with exciting English talents, with legendary United boss Sir Alex Ferguson attributing Michael Owen’s plethora of injury issues in the twilight years of his career to being overplayed as a teenager at Liverpool.
Like Saka, Owen broke through as a teenager in the Premier League, quickly establishing himself as a key player for the Merseyside outfit and indeed for England, scoring the iconic goal in the 1998 World Cup against Argentina.
While Owen’s issues were largely non-contact injuries, with the former striker suffering with a wealth of hamstring issues, there’s also the risk of impact injuries that could lead to further problems.
In recent weeks, Saka has been targeted by the opposition. In the past three Premier League matches, Saka has been fouled at least three times in every game – including on five occasions in the victory over Leeds United.
This season, Saka has been fouled 50 times in total – a tally only beaten by five other players in the Premier League and all it takes is for one of those to be mistimed or for there to be an awkward fall for an injury to occur that could present itself again and again in the years to come.
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Arsenal’s issue is that, while Arteta knows he has to be careful and needs to protect Saka, his side are simply not at their best when he is not available – with even the likes of Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang not having the same importance in the squad.
Willian and Nicolas Pepe, in particular, need to improve their output significantly to help ease the burden upon Saka, with the pair both failing to live up to expectations since their respective moves to the club.
The return of Gabriel Martinelli to fitness can also be a welcome bonus, as it presents Arteta with an alternative option, but Saka leaves big shoes to fill. Right now, it’s difficult to see how exactly Arsenal can fill his role and provide him with the rest he needs.