Is Mikel Arteta over playing Bukayo Saka?

With Erling Haaland pulling out of the Norway squad with a “groin injury”, plenty called for Arsenal players to do similar and declare themselves injured for the next 8-10 days, ruling them out of the international break.

As we discussed yesterday, we only have 4 regulars who will start for their countries over the break – Bukayo Saka, Thomas Partey, Granit Xhaka and Oleksandr Zinchenko.

The rest of those away are fringe players. Arsenal would probably benefit from the likes of Jorginho, Tierney and Smith Rowe getting a competive run out for their countries to keep themselves match sharp.

“We need to do the same with Saka” was a common response after the Haaland news. And this rose to another conversation as to whether Arteta is overplaying Saka and at risk of running him into the ground.

Saka has played 38 of Arsenal’s 39 games this season. As have Granit Xhaka, Gabriel Magalhães and Gabriel Martinelli. He has also played in 6 of England’s 7 fixtures and will probably start both games for his country during the international break.

Just 21, he is 3 games shy of 200 senior appearances for Club and country. That is comparable to the likes of Wayne Rooney and Cesc Fabregas.

His workload has led to same wonder whether he is being overplayed. And whether England, Arsenal, Southgate and Arteta should do more to protect him. But I am not too sure.

Top players play 70 games

In October, Arteta spoke brilliantly about Saka’s work load.

“Look at the top players in the world, they play 70 matches and every three days and make the difference and win the game.

“You want to be at the top, you have to be able to do that. If we start to put something different in the minds of our young players I think we are making a huge mistake because then it’s one yes, one no, now I don’t play, on astroturf I don’t play, I don’t want that.

“I want them to be ruthless every three days. They are going to be knocking on my door, [saying] ‘I want to play, I want to win the game.’”

He added: “There is not a fitness coach in the world who is going to tell me that they cannot do it because I’ve seen it. 72 games, score 50 goals. The players don’t score 50 goals if they play 38 games in the season, it’s impossible.”

Arteta is aluding to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. And that if Saka wants to get near to these guys level, he has to have the desire to play every game he can.

By the time they had turned 22, both Messi and Ronaldo had played over 200 games for club and country. The pair regularly played close to 70 games in the 20s, and 50+ into their mid 30s.

Wayne Rooney and Cesc Fabregas were similar.

All 4 had career spanning 15+ years, and played a combined 3,692 games for club and country.

Neymar has played over 700 games and is still just 21!

At 24, Kylian Mbappe has already played 388 games. Vinicius Junior is already north of 300 and is only a year older than Saka.

Haaland, 22 years old, is at 260 games.

If Saka wants to be considered as one of the best players of his generation, he needs to be playing the games, and maintaing the level.

Others around his age are playing 50-60 games a season, so Saka should be expected to play at the same level.

Play whilst hot

Saka is our best player and in brilliant form. It would make zero sense ro rest or rotate him.

Next year, we will have Champions League football, so Saka can expect his game time to further increase. But as discussed, this is not unsual for players of his ability.

You never know when a player might “run cold”, or pick up an injury that changes their career path. So when they are in the type of form Saka is in, you must play them.

We can try and “protect” Saka, but an injury can occur at any time that derails his career.

It is also impossible to predict when a player will “fall off the cliff” and stop performing at their high level.

Saka could go on as long as Messi and Ronaldo, playing at a high level beyond 35. He might, at 32, follow Rooney’s demise (he still played 670 top level games for Everton, Manchester United and England). Or at 28 he might be done (think Aelxis Sanchez).

A lot of this comes down to the hunger and desire to give 100% in every training session, as much as your body giving up on you.

There is also no gaurantee that he will be at Arsenal into his late 20s and early 30s. Fabregas left us at 24.

Whilst I do expect him to stay at Arsenal for more than the next 3 years, he may well look to move on in his late 20s if we do not give him the success to match his talent. So by protecting him, all we could be doing is benefiting who he moves to.

Saka not rapid

Often, a winger goes downhill when their explosive pace goes. Think Fernando Torres, Michael Owen, Alexis Sanchez, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.

But the best players in the world can reinvent themselves.

Cristiano Ronaldo became a goal poacher. Neymar and Messi both dropped deeper becoming creators.

Saka is quick, but he is not electric, not explosive. He also does not rely on his pace.

He has fantastic movement, ball control and technique. Very rarely do you see him beat a player on the outside with just pace. Most of his best work comes from him drifting inside the full back.

As he does not rely solely on his pace, his career will naturally be longer than those who do rely on pace.

And he is also intelligent and capable of picking out a pass. As his legs go in his later years, you can certainly see him moving inside, playing simialr to where Martin Odegaard does.

The greatest technical footbal lI have ever seen is Dennis Bergkamp.

In his early days he was a pacey winger. He then converted into a number 9. It was only reallwhen he joined Arsenal at 26 that he dropped deeper and became the best number 10 in world football.

Saka can easily play into his mid-30s if he drops inside when the pace he does have begins to go.

Saka is already one of the best players in the world. He is up there with Vinicius Jr and Mbappe. And these sort of players play 70 games a season.

And if Arsenal want to win things over the long term, the likes of Saka, Martinelli, Saliba et al will have to get used to playing 70 games.



1 thought on “Is Mikel Arteta over playing Bukayo Saka?

  1. Andrew Gregory

    Absolutely spot on !! I get fed up with people wanting to ‘rest’ players, they get enough rest as it is. If matches are close, they don’t train as much. As you say, a proper player should want to play and have the desire to do so. Mikel clearly has that view and the results of it are clear to see.



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