Bukayo Saka: A key return
ST ALBANS, ENGLAND - APRIL 02: Bukayo Saka of Arsenal during a training session at London Colney on April 02, 2021 in St Albans, England. (Photo by Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

Following on from Arsenal's timid display against the current Premier League champions Liverpool, it became even more apparent that the Gunners are an entirely different side without Bukayo Saka

Despite his tender age of 19, the Hale End graduate has been Arsenal's fulcrum this season and has combined well with another youth product - Emile Smith Rowe - who was also absent against the Reds.

Additionally, Saka has contributed astutely in terms of goals and assists regardless of where he is deployed by Mikel Arteta, highlighting his versatility in an otherwise unbalanced Arsenal side.

Despite the Gunners continuing to languish in mid-table obscurity this season, there is undoubtably a bright future ahead with Saka as the focal point.

Arsenal unreservedly missed the youngsters attacking dynamism and defensive work rate against Liverpool, and his return is imperative for Thursday's make-or-break game against Slavia Prague

Bukayo Saka's Attacking Influence

First and foremost, Saka brings an extra dimension to Arsenal's attacking play, especially when he is positioned on the right-hand side.

He has played in no fewer than six different positions so far in the 2020/21 season but he has been most effective on the right wing, contributing five goals and six assists in 14 games. 

The 19-year-old has an innate ability to drift into central positions and combine well with overlapping wing-backs, creating attacking overloads that cause mayhem for the opposition defence.

His teammate on the opposite flank, Smith Rowe, also harbours this ability and the Gunners unreservedly missed the pair against Liverpool. 

Saka compares favourably to his teammates in terms of general attacking contribution as he registers more shots per game, key passes and attempts more dribbles per game.

This feat is even more impressive when one considers he is performing at such a high level despite competing with the likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Nicolas Pépé and Willian

Defensive Work Rate

Moreover, Saka provides a diligent defensive work rate which is something Arsenal tend to lack when fielding the likes of Aubameyang and Pépé on either flank. 

When filling in at left-back in the 2019/20 season due to injuries to Kieran Tierney and Sead Kolašinac, Saka was able to learn defensive responsibilities.

Thus far, he has continued to exercise those defensive duties throughout the 2020/21 season despite playing higher up the pitch.

The England international registers more tackles, interceptions and blocks per game than the aforementioned trio, therefore exemplifying why there is a lack of overall balance in Saka's absence.

Positional Versatility 

As mentioned above, another one of Saka's attributes is his ability to play well in a variety of positions, whether it be on either side of an attacking three, in midfield or filling in at left-back.

Although he has been playing his best football on the right-hand side, Saka may be asked to fill in at left-back in the coming weeks due to a knee injury to Tierney.

The former Celtic defender has been another standout performer for the Gunners in what has otherwise been an uninspired season and Arteta may have to call on Saka to replace the Scotsman once again. 

Saka performed admirably in the left-back position as Arsenal earned a hard-fought 1-0 victory over Manchester United at Old Trafford in the Premier League earlier this season, something which the Gunners had failed to do in 14 years.

Therefore, with Tierney out for the foreseeable future and Arsenal lacking depth at left-back, it would be no surprise to see Saka fill in at left-back against Slavia Prague on Thursday night. 

Nevertheless, it is imperative that Saka returns to his preferred position as he has been Arsenal's best player when utilised on the right-wing.

Despite his relative inexperience, Saka has won the Man of the Match award on four separate occasions this season when featuring on the right-hand side against the likes of Brighton & Hove Albion, Newcastle United and S.L. Benfica

Saka has been sorely missed in the few games that he has not featured in this season. His return is a welcome sign for the likes of Arteta and the Arsenal fanbase ahead of crucial Europa League fixtures against Slavia Prague.