Arsenal taking huge transfer risk with tough Bukayo Saka balancing act

Competition has been at the heart of Arsenal's summer business, that word cropping up more often than during a commercial radio ad break.

More than £200million has been spent so far, with the likely commitment to another chunk should David Raya's move stick in 12 months' time, all of it in the name of friendly rivalry.

Of the four newcomers, only the most expensive, Declan Rice, has looked a certain starter. Kai Havertz is in the mix for both midfield and striking roles but not guaranteed either, while Raya is for now understudying Aaron Ramsdale and Jurrien Timber had the versatility to keep an entire backline on its toes until his ACL misfortune.

All over the pitch, even in positions that Martin Odegaard and William Saliba have on lock, Mikel Arteta now has options, his squad approaching the kind of depth it lacked last term. There is, however, one exception, out on the right wing.

Indispensible: Bukayo Saka (AP)
Indispensible: Bukayo Saka (AP)

On Monday night at Crystal Palace, Bukayo Saka made his 82nd consecutive Premier League appearance, equalling an Arsenal record set by Paul Merson in 1997, and one can write with a fair degree of certainty that when Fulham visit the Emirates tomorrow, he will break it.

There is little surprise in the statistical confirmation that Saka has become Arteta's most indispensable player.

Arsenal's last Premier League outing without Saka's involvement came against Newcastle United in May 2021, at the end of the Spaniard's first full season in charge, and there was just one League match last term in which the Englishman did not start, at home to Leeds, after he had been ill in the build-up.

Even then, his manager still felt the need to bring him on with half-an-hour to play and the Gunners already 3-0 ahead.

All of which makes it rather curious that Arsenal, barring a late dip back into the market, look prepared to head into their most demanding campaign in years still without proper back-up for their most important player.

Leandro Trossard, Fabio Vieira and even Emile Smith Rowe are all versatile enough to fill in on occasion, but none are a natural fit. The closest to a like-for-like alternative in Arsenal's squad is Nicolas Pepe, the forgotten £72m man currently training on his own.

In danger of stating the obvious, any injury to Saka would hit Arsenal hard. The nagging fear is that one might be overdue.

Since the start of the 2020/21 season, Saka has played 168 games, the kind of number one might expect from an established, top-level international but not of a player who began that period still finding his feet at the age of 18.

One can spin such stats either way: a promising indicator of immense physical durability (Rice, incidentally, played 174 times in the same span) or the preface to disaster, the kind of premature workload on a developing player that can only spell trouble down the line.

Arsenal, of course, hope the former applies in Saka's case and, presumably, must have the physical data to suggest it does. Arteta insisted only last season that his stars must be able to match the likes of Mo Salah for games played if they are to do likewise for goals and assists.

"Look at the top players," he said. "They play 70 matches and every three days and make the difference and win the game.

"The players that score 50 goals do not play 38 games in the season, it's just impossible."

Those numbers are pie in the sky stuff, but another year into his development and with Champions League football on the agenda for the first time, Saka will be looking to push beyond last season's tally of 15.