Just when it seemed like Mikel Arteta had run out of positions in which to play Bukayo Saka, he managed to crowbar him in at right wing-back against Chelsea on Wednesday evening.
That will go down as his fourth different position in under a week, having variously played on the right wing, in attacking midfield and at left-back against Villarreal last Thursday as Arsenal limped out of the Europa League.
While Arteta may feel that he is taking the Total Football approach to Saka’s development, he has now made 44 appearances this season and has seemed overstretched in the last few games.
His positional switches against Villarreal didn’t come off and, while Arsenal managed to win 1-0 against Chelsea, he had some difficult moments before being replaced by Hector Bellerin with just under half an hour to play.
That’s no reflection on Saka, who has been one of only a few saving graces for Arsenal this season. At 19, he has been asked to shoulder an enormous amount of responsibility and, with so many positional changes, as versatile as he is, it’s little wonder that he’s finding it hard to maintain his rhythm.
Bellerin, meanwhile, must wonder what to make of the decision to start Saka on the right side of defence.
Arteta had three specialist right-backs to choose from at Stamford Bridge and, instead, he opted to leave Bellerin, Cedric Soares and Calum Chambers on the bench and start Saka – who is more accustomed to playing at left wing-back – instead.
Given that Arsenal’s season is effectively over, Arteta may as well use this time to experiment. For Bellerin, however, it may have felt like confirmation that his Arsenal career is coming to an end.
It’s been widely reported that Bellerin is among a select group of senior players who could leave the club this summer. With just over two more years on his current deal, he is coming to the point where he will have to make an imminent decision on his future.
By starting Saka at right wing-back when he had three senior right-backs on the bench, Arteta may have signalled that he has already started his succession planning.
While Saka is unlikely to feature there regularly, Arteta may have been trialling him as cover in case his right-back options are diminished this summer.
While Bellerin has divided opinion this term, he has had spells of genuine brilliance since making his senior breakthrough back in 2014. Things might have been different had it not been for the ruptured cruciate ligament he suffered two years ago, which saw him miss nine months of football and undergo a gruelling rehabilitation period.
It understandably took him a long time to rediscover his form and, even this season, he has struggled for consistency. Still only 26, he may well have the best years of his career ahead of him and few could blame him for wanting a fresh start after Arsenal’s decline in recent years.
Injured towards the end of the game against Chelsea and replaced by Calum Chambers, Bellerin may have an anxious wait to discover the extent of the problem. He could quite feasibly have played his last game for Arsenal.
An academy graduate who has gone on to become a three-time FA Cup winner with 239 appearances to his name, he can leave with his head held high.
As for Arteta, he will have to decide how best to replace one of Arsenal’s longest-serving players and make sure that right-back doesn’t become yet another problem position.
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