Wha’ts the problem? He’s our starboy, our talisman, our linchpin. As he goes, so goes our season. The more more he plays, the more he scores. With so much riding on him, the problem is that we’re riding him so much. Few outfield players have played more minutes than our unicorn-riding starlet, and even fewer still have scythed down as cynically or as often as he has. A little more protection from referees would be nice, but I think we’re all a bit too savvy to expect that. Absent such protection, it might be nice to see some better squad management. Let’s get down to brass tacks, shall we?Read more: How do you solve a problem like Bukayo?
We depend on Saka to an extraordinary level. As he goes, so goes the match, the squad, the season. It would be difficult if not impossible to imagine how damaging it would be to lose him to injury. At just about every other position, we have depth. Despite the heavy minutes he’s logged over the last few seasons, despite the numerous fouls called or uncalled, we go into this season without a suitable substitute for one of our most-important players. For as important as it was to sign Rice, for as nice as it was to sign Raya, for as…um…”interesting” as it was to sign Havertz, our inability to sign someone who could slot in for Saka may turn out to be our Achilles’ Heel.
There are persistent if not provable rumours that Saka has been carrying an injury to his Achilles’ tendon. That’s not something that just gets better on its own. The more he plays, the more likely he is to suffer a season-ending injury. Those rumours suggest that the problem nagged at him for most of last season, which, if true, begs certain questions, to whit: why was he playing full 90s through the run-in? Why didn’t we secure a suitable backup over the summer? Why has he logged such heavy minutes already to start this campaign?
Absent a suitable substitute, we have to cast a wider net. Who could deputise against smaller sides or at least in matches in which we’ve secured three points? We’d have to concede that the outcome of our first four matches was never secure and that we needed Saka—but that’s hardly comforting going forward. We go into Goodison Park on Sunday for what should be three points taken from a side hoping to stave off relegation…but reality is rarely that simple. Sean Dyche is hardly Tony Pulis, but his sides are known for their physicailty.
That’s the short-term concern. Looking at the long term, who can fill Saka’s boots? Trossard and Nelson come to mind, but they’re better from the left side of things. Vieira is an option, but he’s more of an attacking midfielder than a winger. Long story short, we’re short of options when it comes to subbing Saka off.
It would be nice if we could put opponents to the sword early enough to give Saka a rest even if it’s only 20 minutes here and 30 minutes there. Speaking only for myself, I’d much rather see the likes of Nelson or Vieira play those last 60 or 70 minutes even if it’s not at their ideal position if it means preserving Saka, not just for this current season but for years to come. We have in our squad a preternaturally precocious talent, and I’d hate to see his career follow the path paved by, say, Wilshere.
That’s some catch, that catch-22. The more we play him, the more likely we are to win. By the same token, the more we play him, the more we come to depend on him and expose ourselves to the risk of losing him. With Champions League matches on the horizon, managing his minutes becomes that much more vital. It’s not like last season when we could treat Europa League group-stage matches like League Cup matches.
We’re going to need Saka to carry us. In order for him to carry us, Arteta’s going to have to figure out how to manage Saka’s minutes. That might just turn out to be the biggest challenge Arteta faces until a suitable substitute can be developed from within or signed in January.