Mikel Arteta offered hope to concerned Arsenal fans with his latest fitness update on Bukayo Saka ahead of Sunday’s blockbuster Premier League clash with champions Manchester City.
Saka went off injured for the second game in succession during Tuesday’s 2-1 Champions League defeat at Lens.
While the England winger suffered a blow to the ankle during last weekend’s Premier League win at Bournemouth, he appeared to suffer discomfort in his hamstring after attempting a backheel at Estadio Bollaert-Delelis.
“He is in contention. We’ll see how he progresses from here to Sunday,” Arteta said at a pre-match news conference. “Obviously, he had to leave the pitch — that’s never good news. But let’s see how he recovers.”
“In contention” is usually as remote as Saka’s selection prospects get at Emirates Stadium. The 22-year-old is in the midst of a club-record run of 87 Premier League appearances.
While a lot of the pre-match talk around City has concerned their record with and without suspended midfield lynchpin Rodri, you can’t really have the same conversation about Saka and Arsenal. There is nothing in the “without Saka” column to analyse that is of any relevance.
That also means that Arteta could be forced into a lineup he has never previously considered. Here, we assess the options available if Saka doesn’t make it to face the treble winners.
Who can replace Bukayo Saka for Arsenal vs Man City?
The most straightforward suggestion to make given Vieira replaced Saka from the bench at Bournemouth and Lens. The 23-year-old Portuguese midfielder has enjoyed a more prominent role in Arteta’s plans this season and was handed starts away to Everton and in the north London derby against Tottenham. However, both of those came in central midfield and, although he represents a like-for-like replacement for Saka in terms of being a left-footer who can cut in from the right-hand side, playing in the middle looks a far more natural fit for Vieira.
A change of club has not quietened the debate of what Havertz’s best position might be. Why not have a go on the right wing? City certainly know all about the Germany international’s big-game pedigree after he scored the winner against them in the 2021 Champions League final. Arteta has carved out a role for Havertz in his midfield three alongside captain Martin Odegaard and with Declan Rice holding. Thomas Partey is battling to return to fitness for the City match and if he is ready to start it opens up the possibility of adding Havertz to the front three without weakening the midfield.
The only straight swap available, given Nelson is the other out-and-out right winger in Arteta’s squad. The 23-year-old can be an effective option off the bench and his last-gasp winner against Bournemouth last season provided one of the most memorable moments of Arsenal’s title challenge. However, Nelson’s only start this term has come in the Carabao Cup and parachuting him into the first XI to face City feels like a gamble Arteta would be unwilling to take.
Okay, this seems odd on the face of it: moving one of Arteta’s flagship signings out of his favourite position to fill in for an even more important player does have a deckchairs-on-the-Titanic feel. But hear me out — it’s probably the best option of the four presented. Eddie Nketiah has performed creditably during Jesus’ not-insignificant injury absences since joining Arsenal and could definitely be trusted at centre-forward against a City defence that has only kept one clean sheet in the past eight matches across all competitions.
Additionally, Jesus’ best performances during his final year at City came from the right wing, especially during the early months of 2021/22 as he chimed in with goals and assists from the flank to rebuild confidence levels that had been at a low ebb. Pep Guardiola certainly knows how effective and damaging the Brazil forward can be from that position.