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Shot out of a cannon: Saka's hot start
Make no mistake: Bukayo Saka's first seven games have been special
Sometime around the middle of the international break, when Bukayo Saka’s Achilles injury hit the press, I remember seeing some talk about Arsenal’s world-class attacker. I witnessed his start to the season being described in a certain ordinary manner, as if it made sense that he might be playing “handbrake on” over the first handful or so games.
I have to admit, it was a little bit of a “rub my eyes” moment for me. And then Arsenal’s return to the Champions League happened, and Saka involved himself in two goals in 20 minutes.
Arsenal’s first European Wednesday night in years couldn’t have gone better for Saka, who had more than two moments of great play but will largely be remembered for his goal and assist. And I’m hopeful that game can help me drive home a big, big point: Bukayo Saka is in excellent form!
I like to wait until at least 900 to 1,000 minutes to do a full radar, but let’s break down the winger’s hot start to the season, stat by stat with a few charts:
I feel like maybe including that third cluster did the rest of the chart a disservice. Obviously it’s early days, but Saka so far has seen nearly a 25% bump in xG per 90 (non-penalty edition) and a 16% bump in xA per 90. This doesn’t include the Community Shield, where he got an assist. And while there’s some element of overperformance at work here (Trossard’s shot from Saka’s pass last night wasn’t a crazy-high-odds chance), his Premier League tally of 3 non-penalty GA on 2.7 npxG is dead-on.
Saka so far has been relied upon to do more carrying than ever before, and what I’ve seen has been very good. He’s touched the ball 67.5 times per 90 minutes this season in all competitions, up from 53.7 last season. A huge chunk of that increase (10.4) is increased final-third touches, which results I’m sure at least partly from Arsenal’s territorial dominance so far this season. The carries into the penalty area have tailed off a bit, but the nearly two times he’s doing that per 90 are still a high-ranking number.
This one is pretty crazy. Saka is touching the ball more than ever before, and he is dribbling more per 90 and at a better success rate than previous seasons. When you adjust to per-touch he’s actually dribbling a hair less than last season, but look at the improvement in ball security. And remember - this is while making significantly more touches in the attacking parts of the pitch than ever before. It’s a very encouraging way to quantify a season that’s already been good in so many of the more obvious ways.
As we’ve covered already, Saka plays a lot. And he’s going to keep playing a lot.
But while some people seem ready to use that workload to make excuses for a dip in performance that just isn’t happening, all the above (even with some evening-out relatively likely to happen) feels like a good sign that this is a player who just keeps getting better.
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