For a man who spent most of his playing career in the middle of the pitch, and was never particularly effective in front of goal, Mikel Arteta seems to know plenty about the art of scoring goals from wide areas. Clearly, it does not take a goalscoring winger to know one.
It was during Arteta’s time at Manchester City, as Pep Guardiola’s assistant, that he was widely credited with turning the club’s wide forwards into consistent goal threats. Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane, especially, became deadly finishers under the Spaniard’s close guidance.
With Sterling in particular, Arteta spent hour after hour, day after day, working on the timing of his runs and the nature of his finishing. The two of them would come together after training and focus, Guardiola once said, on the “last action” that made Sterling such a dangerous player for City.
Now at Arsenal, in a different role and with a different set of players, Arteta and his coaching staff appear to have been teaching many of those same lessons to another pair of wingers: Bukayo Saka and Gabriel Martinelli.
Wednesday’s meeting with Everton brought the latest victory for Arsenal, and the latest goals for the two young stars of their thrilling title charge. Saka scored again, in the 40th minute of this 4-0 thrashing, and Martinelli joined him on the scoresheet just six minutes later.
It is a measure of their excellence this season, and indeed their development under Arteta, that Saka and Martinelli have both hit double figures in this Premier League campaign already. Martinelli has scored 11 league goals this season, while Saka has scored 10.
No other side has two players in double figures for goals, and no other team boasts a pair of wingers as efficient in the final third as these two 21-year-olds. With each passing week, they are becoming more and more influential: Arsenal have scored 10 goals in their past four matches, and Saka and Martinelli have struck seven of those.
“I’m happy [to hit double figures],” said Saka. “It is something I always set myself, to try and improve. I am hungry to achieve more.”
What makes them so good? Well, individual talent is clearly at the heart of it. These are two of the most exciting young forwards in the European game, playing with a skill and hunger that few others can match. Both players have pace to burn, and both players can score with either foot.
The importance of the system behind them, though, should not be understated. Arsenal play with the same defined structure and passing patterns in each game, with every player knowing their individual role within the wider network. Saka and Martinelli know which areas to attack, and which moments to attack them.
Such is the slickness of Arsenal’s system, they often produce the same repeatable moves in consecutive matches. Close observers will have noted a particular play, for example, which results in Saka receiving the ball in space on the right wing: when centre-back Gabriel Magalhaes has possession, Martin Odegaard will make a darting run in behind the opposition. The opposing team’s left-back usually follows him infield, leaving Saka open to receive the switch from Gabriel.
These might sound like small details but it is little aspects of the game that allow Arsenal to dominate opponents and make the most of their wingers on the flanks. In the past two matches, too, Martinelli has been given more freedom by the presence of Leandro Trossard as a floating false nine in attack.
“It is credit to them because, in the end, they have to do it themselves,” said Arteta of Saka and Martinelli. “But we try to help them with our way of playing by trying to get them in those positions as much as possible.
“They are so willing to learn, they are asking for more and more every single day. They never have enough information, they want more. They want the space, they want the practice and when you have that, and you have the talent that they have and the ideas that they have, good things will happen.”
A shared quality of the recent Premier League-winning teams has been wide forwards who can regularly contribute goals. Sterling reached double figures for goals in five consecutive seasons for City, while Riyad Mahrez has done so twice in the past three seasons. Sane, meanwhile, struck 10 league goals in back-to-back campaigns for City.
At Liverpool, too, the flow of goals from Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane was fundamental to their success over recent campaigns. From the summer of 2017 until the start of this season, those two forwards scored a combined total of 195 goals in the Premier League, an average of 39 goals per campaign.
Evidently, Saka and Martinelli have some way to go before they can match those numbers. But the best teams of this era have had a sustained goal threat from their wingers, and Saka and Martinelli are now providing that for Arsenal. With Martinelli agreeing a new contract a few weeks ago, and Saka set to sign his own improved deal in the coming days, the hope, and the expectation, in north London is that they will continue to do so for years to come.