Two games, two defeats, five goals conceded and three players already injured. But Arsenal's number 77 has offered some cause for optimism in contrast to those damning figures.
Bukayo Saka has been one of the revelations of the season, offering a potent, creative threat largely as a reluctant left-back. While his favoured position has long been on the wing, Saka's bright display in Arsenal's bitter loss to Brighton may point to a future in an unfamiliar midfield role.
Where to deploy Saka's precocious talent has been a topic for debate this season, and for a lot of his short career. The temptation to utilise his pace, left-footedness and excellent delivery from left-back is one that England's under-age coaches have given in to several times over the years.
But it was on a cold December night in Belgium when Freddie Ljungberg gave the 18-year-old a defensive brief amid an injury crisis. This didn't go down particularly well with Saka, as Ljungberg explained: "He was a bit upset with me because he had to play wing-back and full-back, and he doesn’t like it so much.”
Despite Saka's protestations, he thrived on the night - getting a goal and an assist in a wonderful performance which Ljungberg's replacement took full notice of. Since Mikel Arteta's appointment in December, Saka has featured in all but one of the Spaniard's matches - with each outing coming at left-back prior to the restart.
However, he did his best to return to that familiar position high up the flank as often as he could. When in possession, Arteta's side tried to attack with as many as five players across the front line - with Saka the widest outlet on the left-hand side. Defensive midfielder Granit Xhaka shuffled across to protect the chasm the precocious youngster's rampages forward left if the attack broke down.
The Arsenal kids are cutting through!— The Premier League is BACK on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) January 27, 2020
The Gunners double their lead as Saka's cross is turned home by Eddie Nketiah. pic.twitter.com/kKfSjQmHOU
Gradually, the team showed some signs of improvement using this system, losing one game from their final 13 before the suspension of play as Saka continued to rack up the assists. His pass to Nicolas Pépé for Arsenal's opener against Brighton took his season's tally to ten across all competitions, but it came after a move to midfield.
With natural left-backs Kieran Tierney and Sead Kolasinac finally fit, Arteta deployed Saka on the left-hand side of midfield three, with Matteo Guendouzi sitting deep and Dani Ceballos to the right. This was one of the first times Arteta had strayed away from a 4-2-3-1 formation and while the match ended in defeat, Saka's performance may have earned the system another outing.
Three days after watching Kevin De Bruyne mercilessly tear Arsenal apart, there was a whiff of the Belgian in the positions Saka was cropping up in against Brighton. He was granted a healthy dose of positional freedom by Arteta, offering an option in-field as he combined with Kolasinac and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang down the left.
It was when he drifted out wide, allowing Aubameyang to move inside, swinging in probing crosses, that Arsenal's most threatening moments of the match came.
However, that's not to say that he was tethered to the touchline. When he drove forward and cut onto his weaker right foot, he rattled the crossbar with a looping effort inside the opening ten minutes – and it was from an inside-right position that Saka found Pépé for the opener.
The academy graduate's spirited displays have too often gone unaccompanied by similar performances from his more senior teammates. It's worrying enough that Arsenal's main (and at times only) creative threat comes in the form of the squad's youngest player, but he may not even be at the club much longer.
Saka's current deal only extends to the summer of 2021 and a 90min learned in late April that the club were struggling agree a new contract with the talented 18-year-old as a host of Premier League rivals circle – and although talks have since progressed, no new deal has been signed.
It's estimated that Saka's rapidly expiring contract is worth between £5,000 and £7,000 a week, making him one of the squad's lowest earners. If Arsenal fail to reach an agreement with the player, the club will be forced to sell one of their few bright spots from the campaign in the upcoming window or face losing him on a free transfer next year.
This would not be the first time Arsenal have let contract negotiations get out of hand, as the club are arguably still paying the consequences of allowing both Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez to enter the final year of their deals in 2018 before a preferred arrangement could be found.
The fallout from those scenarios could, and surely should, be avoided if Arsenal swiftly provide the youngster with a deal he greatly deserves. With finances understandably tight given the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic - especially for a club like Arsenal, who earn heavily from match-day income - tying Saka down to a long-term deal seems to be a logical (and necessary) use of the limited funds available.
Otherwise, they may risk seeing the season's shining light burn even brighter elsewhere.
Source : 90min