There was something cute, and apt, and agreeably Deep Arsenal about the fact Bukayo Saka scored the club’s first goal back in the Champions League on Wednesday night, a moment of ceremonial coming-out for this Mikel Arteta iteration, with a slightly bobbled right-foot shot.
The Emirates Stadium was built to house these occasions, finessed and overseen by the great Euro-moderniser Arsène Wenger. Even its design feels like an economist’s idea of a sporting cathedral, with its echoes of the steel and glass mega-structures of the City of London two miles to the south.
Wenger had left the club before Saka made his full debut. Their first meeting on senior terms came on a rare visit last season, and was reported with due reverence, the hooded old Jedi master casing an eye over the latest padawan. Saka asked Wenger one key question: “Tell me what I can do to improve as a player.” Rather than expansive, lyrical, inspirational, Wenger’s answer was typically arch. “Use your right foot more.”
Given some of Wenger’s more widely publicised recent big ideas – biennial World Cups, the abolition of grass, a giant statue of Gianni Infantino made from artisan comte cheese to be erected on Madagascar – this seems like a pretty sensible tip, and a moment Saka has perhaps taken to heart given his own constant talk about finding new angles and new edges in his game.
Although four years into that senior career, with Saka now bolted in as an Arsenal and England undroppable, it is tempting to wonder at times if the better advice might have been to use both of his legs just a little bit less.
Arsenal are back at the Emirates on Sunday for an agreeably layered new-season north London derby, another game of must-win in a league season of must-wins, during which Saka has already played almost every minute of all six matches. Saka starts. Saka plays to the end. This is the drill. How far can it run like that?
He will, of course, start again on the right of the attack on Sunday afternoon in a game that feels unusually nuanced for a variety of other reasons. For a start there is already a sense Spurs might just have come up with an unsettling new dynamic in these contests, a new form of super-weapon. What do you do, how do you take aim, when the manager of your most hated opponents is non-negotiably likable?
Those feelings of enmity are stress-tested against all eventualities. But niceness? Contagious emotional intelligence? Ange-vibes? This is something new and deeply unexpected. Happily history suggests these occasions tend to look after themselves when it comes to grudge maintenance. And Postecoglou’s presence is remarkable for more prosaic reasons, too.
Scroll back down the list and Spurs have had three managers of various shades since the last north London derby. will make it four across the last six of these games, a run that almost feels like a release of pressure, a free hit at this thing, a reminder that Postecoglou is, whatever the energy, starting from a fairly low base here.
For Arteta the need for victory is plain enough, sharpened by some slightly stodgy, fiddly early season form. In these circumstances, Saka is utterly vital, a beautifully smooth and unwavering source of incision, able to create and score and track and pass and basically do whatever is asked with or without the ball.
It is a quality of relentlessness that has contributed to some startling numbers at this stage in his career. Saka became a regular Arsenal first team player almost exactly four years ago. According to the Transfermarkt website he has in that time missed only five games through injury, although this is as much a tribute to his tendency to play through pain.
That achilles problem that dampened the end to last season is still lurking now. There have been bruises and sprains before then. Saka plays on. To the extent that aged 22 he has now played 212 professional games for Arsenal and England in the first four years of his career as a regular starter.
This is a lot, and not least in supposedly enlightened times, with detailed precedent on the strain on young players of regular, three-games-a-week elite football jammed between summer tournaments. Ryan Giggs, injury-wracked through his 20s but a yoga-driven survivor by the end, played a similar number across the same period. Michael Owen, often raised as a parable of early overstretch, played 180 in his first four years. Wayne Rooney, also constantly on the edge of pain, played 201.
Phil Foden, carefully managed to date, played 177 games over his first four full seasons, many of those as a substitute. Kyle Walker, a useful case study if only in his capacity as the worlds’s fittest 33-year-old career athlete, played 50 fewer games than Saka in his first four seasons and is still out there romping around like a cartoon stallion.
Total games played is, of course, the bluntest of metrics. All young players of this calibre will play constantly. All footballers are physically distinct, with different capacities. Sport science, rest, nutrition and physical maintenance are all vastly improved. Saka will be monitored constantly by Arsenal’s staff, tracked through the amber zone towards the red, risk and reward continuously weighed.
But the fact is his workload has been extreme, and in a team that is reliant on his performances being constantly at a high level. It is only natural he should seem to be suffering a degree of mental fatigue at times, as he did in the title run-in last year. This season every one of Arsenal’s league games has been tight and gruellingly involved to the end, with no time to freewheel or manage physical and mental energies, at least until the release of Wednesday night’s 4-0 win against PSV Eindhoven.
There are two other factors here that add to the load. First, Saka’s game, the way he plays, which is naturally concussive, with a lot of hard sprints and a tendency to run into contact. It has become common for opposition fans to barrack him for the amount of time spent in pain on the ground. But more often than not Saka is a victim of his own relentlessness, doesn’t tend to cushion his own collisions, trying to escape the contact rather than taking a “safe” foul. He is strong, but hardly a huge physical specimen next to the average Premier League defender. There is just a degree of inbuilt physical pain in the way he interprets the game.
Plus, there is the role of Arteta in managing all this, a degree of ruthless expectation in his stated desire to see his best players match their own workload to those players who have managed 70 games a season. “There is not a fitness coach in the world who is going to tell me that they cannot do it,” Arteta said last season, which does at least suggest someone somewhere has tried. “I’ve seen it. Seventy-two games, score 50 goals. The players don’t score 50 goals if they play 38 games in the season, it’s impossible.”
It is true that Lionel Messi, for example, has played that many games. But Arteta will know about the difference in intensity in some of them. Messi protected himself at times. For long periods he played in a team that, for all its Messi-dependencia, could kill you in other ways. There is a sense that Arsenal’s attacking hand is still a little thin. Could Gabriel Jesus play a little more often on the right, giving Saka time to rest even in games of moderate importance?
Either way Sunday seems certain to be another full-strength affair decided, in all likelihood, by events on the flanks. Gabriel Martinelli is struggling with a hamstring injury, casting greater emphasis on Saka’s side. His immediate opponent, Destiny Udogie, has been a revelation for Spurs, winning the ball in attacking areas more than any other player in the Premier League, and sure to demand a full shift from attack to defence on that side.
There will be no rest for now. The occasion is always too urgent, Saka too good, Arsenal’s need too pronounced. The obvious corollary remains. Saka has either scored or assisted six of Arsenal’s last 11 goals. Whatever the task, he just keeps on coming.