Bukayo Saka has been in masterful form for Arsenal this season and Gabriel Martinelli’s impact has been spectacular too. But their success is no accident. It has been engineered by the tactics of Mikel Arteta. Opponents are struggling to find an answer.
The temptation is to put it down to individual brilliance and there has been plenty of that. Saka lashed the ball into the top corner with his right foot against Everton just as convincingly as he had hammered the ball in with his left against Aston Villa.
Martinelli ended an eight-game run without a goal by scoring late at Villa Park and has since shown his quality in scoring the winner at Leicester and adding two more against Everton. His extreme pace coupled with his composed finishing is a rare combination.
The Brazilian is the fifth-highest scorer in the Premier League with Saka not far behind. The England international has also provided nine assists, more than anyone else in double figures for goals. Worth remembering that both are only 21 years of age.
But these talented young players are also the beneficiaries of a system that is set up for them to succeed. “We try to help them with our way of playing to get them in those positions as much as possible,” Arteta explained after the thrashing of Everton.
The statistics show this very clearly. There is data now available that tracks the number of one-against-one situations in which a player finds themselves. These are moments in a match when they have the ball and are isolated against a single opponent.
Unlike the statistics for the number of dribbles, the player in possession is not required to make a clear and obvious attempt to beat this isolated defender for it to be registered as a one-on-one situation. It simply logs the number of times this situation is created.
Saka has managed to find himself in this one-on-one situation with the ball at his feet on 270 occasions in the Premier League this season. That is 67 more than the next player on the list, the only other to have received the ball in this way more than 200 times.
That man is Martinelli.
Given these numbers, it should be no surprise that Saka has completed more dribbles than any other player in the Premier League – with Martinelli once again next on the list. They are so regularly in situations that encourage them to take on their marker.
It means that they can also be more dangerous when taking on an opponent. Saka has attempted the most dribbles of anyone in the Premier League but compare him to the man who is second on that list, Wilfried Zaha, and the circumstances are different.
Over half of the 110 dribbles that Saka has attempted – 65 of them, in fact, or 59 per cent – have come when in a one-on-one situation. Zaha, the Crystal Palace forward, is not far behind with 94 attempts but only 22 – just 23 per cent – have been when one-on-one.
For Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah, the percentage is even lower – only 18 of his 85 attempted dribbles have been when in a one-on-one situation. In fact, of the top 10 dribblers, who are the only ones to attempt more than half of their dribbles in one-on-one situations?
Saka and Martinelli.
Being in a dominant team helps with the number of promising situations. Arsenal have had more of the ball than 18 of the other 19 teams in the Premier League. It might be seen as entirely logical that this would lead to their players having more opportunities.
But there is more to it than that. The circulation of the ball, the entire set-up of Arteta’s Arsenal team, is designed with this in mind. He is trying to create these situations for his wide players so that they can penetrate the defensive line of the opponent.
Consider the fact that overlapping full-backs were once seen as a staple of attacking play, their presence used to create an overload if the opposition winger did not track the run or to buy that slightest bit of extra space even if they did. Arsenal do it less now.
As with Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, who often looks to do much the same with Jack Grealish and Riyad Mahrez, the idea is to stay away from the winger. Look at the positioning of Ben White early in the game against Everton when Saka is in possession.
Arsenal’s 3-2-5 formation sees White providing defensive support if the winger is dispossessed while Martin Odegaard moves into the half-space, a rather more suitable player to take advantage of any quick exchanges that may be available to Saka.
The level of detail extends beyond the number of times that Arsenal can work the ball into their wide players this way. It also involves their precise body position when receiving it. Arteta wants Saka and Martinelli to collect the ball on the angle, facing goal.
“I do not like creating [straight] lines between the wide players,” Arteta once said. “Why? Because the full-back passes to the wide player like this and his back is to goal, he cannot progress the play, there is always someone at his bum, he cannot play forward.”
The above example from the win over Tottenham in January shows how Saka seeks to move as wide as possible in order to receive the pass from White at an angle so that he has enough room to turn and face the opponent upon collecting the ball.
If White is pushed wider when in possession, Saka changes his movement rather than look for a straighter pass that would leave him up against the defender. This example from the Boxing Day win over West Ham sees him cut inside for the ball over the top instead.
Most of these movements are mirrored by Martinelli on the left. He has had more penalty-box entries following a one-on-one situation than any other Premier League player. His goal at Brighton came from coming inside to latch onto Odegaard’s outrageous pass.
There was a lot for Martinelli to do. It takes undoubted quality from passer and receiver to go from this position to celebrating a goal just seconds later. The ability of the exceptional individuals in this Arsenal team is helping to make the difference in this title race.
But what is clear is that they are being given every chance to thrive thanks to the tactical decisions of a coach who has recognised the best way to maximise these strengths. Creating one-on-one situations for his young wingers has been an Arteta masterstroke.