Raphinha, Moussa Diaby or Wilfried Zaha? Arsenal must sign a Bukayo Saka back-up in the summer transfer window

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The Gunners winger has made 78 consecutive Premier League appearances for Mikel Arteta's team, and he has looked tired in recent weeks

Arsenal spent a lot of time last summer looking to bring in some cover for Bukayo Saka on the right side of their attack. Raphinha was the player they wanted, and they did make a bid for the Leeds United winger. But when that bid was rejected and Raphinha’s determination to seal a dream move to Barcelona became abundantly clear, Arsenal took a step back.

At that point you thought the Gunners would move on to other targets. Moussa Diaby, the Bayer Leverkusen winger, is a player they are known to have admired for some time, and there was a feeling the north London club could make a move for the 23-year-old. But they never did.

And when the transfer window closed at the end of the summer the only right winger who had arrived at Arsenal was Marquinhos, the 19-year-old Brazilian who had come in from Sao Paulo. 

The capture of Marquinhos was seen as one for the future. He was talented, but he wasn’t a player who was expected to immediately challenge for the first-team. In fact, the expectation was that he would head out on loan almost immediately. So that left Mikel Arteta once again relying almost purely on Saka on the right hand side of his front-line. 

  1. A player in need of protection

    A player in need of protection

    Saka’s durability is one of his biggest strengths. No matter how many games he plays and how many kicks he takes, he always seems to be available. And for Arsenal, that has been hugely important during the past two seasons, because they haven’t really had anyone around who could fill in for him, should he be absent for a sustained period of time.

    Reiss Nelson is one possibility, but Arteta has always seemed to prefer using him on the left on the odd occasion he has been handed any game time during the past couple of campaigns.

    The fact Saka hasn’t picked up any sort of serious injury seems more down to good fortune rather than anything else, given the treatment he receives on a weekly basis from defenders. His team-mates and Arteta have long called for the winger to be given more protection from referees, but so far those appeals have fallen on deaf ears.

  2. 78 consecutive league appearances
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    78 consecutive league appearances

    Saka has featured in every single Premier League game for Arsenal this season. The only game he didn’t start, against Leeds, he was introduced as a second-half substitute despite the fact he had been ill and hadn’t been able to train the day before.

    In fact, Saka has made an appearance in Arsenal’s last 78 Premier League fixtures. The last game he missed was against Newcastle in May 2021, when he was an unused substitute. That’s currently the longest run of consecutive league appearances in the league (David de Gea is second with 75).

    Since the start of the 2021-22 campaign, Saka has featured 74 times - again, more than any other player in the league. Of those 74 appearances, 71 have been starts. For a 21-year-old, those are remarkable numbers, especially when you factor in the games he has played for England during the same period of time. 

    They are also numbers, however, which show how important it is that Arsenal finally bring in some much-needed cover for Saka this summer.

  3. One goal in eight games
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    One goal in eight games

    Saka may have the capability to consistently be available, but his performances in recent weeks suggest the incredible workload he has had to take on has started to catch up with him. Since scoring twice against Crystal Palace on March 19, the winger has started eight times for Arsenal and has struggled to find the same level of performance that he had produced during the earlier part of the campaign.

    In those eight games, Saka has managed just one goal and one assist. Previously, he had been averaging 0.82 direct goal involvements per 90 minutes, but since the win against Palace that has dropped sharply, falling to just 0.29.

    Saka is now taking fewer shots per 90 minutes (2.3 compared to 2.6), creating fewer chances (1.6 compared to 2.3) and having fewer touches (53.3 compared to 59.6). He also missed a crucial penalty during that run, firing wide in the 2-2 draw at West Ham.

  4. Arteta's need to rotate

    Arteta's need to rotate

    When you consider the amount of football Saka has been asked to play, both for his club and his country over the past two years, it is no surprise that physically he may be beginning to struggle a bit as the season comes to a close.

    And that doesn’t just go for him when you are looking at the Arsenal team. Up to this point of the campaign, Saka, Ben White, Gabriel Martinelli and Gabriel Magalhaes have all featured in every league game this season for the Gunners. Saka has clocked up 3,041 Premier League minutes this season. For comparison, Bernardo Silva at Manchester City has 2,119, Jack Grealish has 2,063, Riyad Mahrez has 1,669 and Phil Foden has 1,612.

    Pep Guardiola’s embarrassment of riches in the attacking areas means he can pick and choose who he wants for games, safe in the knowledge that the drop off in performance will not be vast. His players now look as sharp as they have all season as a result.

    Arteta doesn’t really have that luxury. The core group of his team have started almost every game when available, and that has to change if Arsenal are going to take another step forward next season and compete not just for the Premier League, but also in the Champions League.

  5. Time to revisit Raphinha?
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    Time to revisit Raphinha?

    Arsenal are set to have a busy summer window. Improving in midfield is the priority, with some major changes on the horizon. Arsenal are expected to soon put in a first bid for Declan Rice, while Moises Caicedo is also still a target after following January’s unsuccessful attempts to lure him away from Brighton.

    But bringing in a player who can share the burden with Saka on the right-hand side of the attack has to be viewed as equally as important. It is an area where Arsenal are looking to strengthen, and it will be interesting to see Barcelona decide to look for potential suitors for Raphinha as they attempt to raise money and free up space on the wage bill for Lionel Messi. Arteta is an admirer of the Brazilian and Edu is very close with his agent, Deco, who in turn is set to take up a role as Barca's sporting director shortly.

    Diaby at Leverkusen is another player Arsenal like, and the Gunners are currently in talks with the Bundesliga club over the sale of Granit Xhaka. At present, it does not appear that Diaby’s potential availability has anything to do with the talks. Whether that changes remains to be seen.

  6. A summer priority
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    A summer priority

    Wilfried Zaha could also be an option. The Crystal Palace winger will be available on a free transfer this summer should he not sign a new deal at Selhurst Park, and Arsenal have held an interest in him in the past. There will be plenty of others who will also have been identified through the detailed data analysis Arsenal produce when they scour the globe for their transfer targets, too. And it’s essential that one of those comes in before the end of the window to provide the cover and competition that Saka has needed for some time now.

    Arsenal have got incredibly lucky when it comes to their young winger during the past couple of years, but that luck will eventually run out if they do not give themselves the opportunity to give him a breather when the opportunity arises.