When Project Restart became a reality, the major story was Liverpool‘s renewed title challenge, and when they would finally end 30 years of hurt to claim an unprecedented Premier League triumph.
Since the league title was sealed, observers have focused on other sub-plots in the division, from the battle for the Champions League spots to the feeble efforts of the teams trying to avoid relegation.
Perhaps the most interesting story has been the influence of three supreme young talents: Bukayo Saka, Mason Greenwood and Christian Pulisic since the restart, with their impact generating the kind of buzz at Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea respectively that has rarely been felt in recent years.
Saka, 18, has thrived amid a largely topsy-turvy campaign where the Gunners have had two permanent head coaches at the helm, either side of club icon Freddie Ljungberg being in charge in an interim capacity. He’s performed commendably despite a turbulent year where many of the top players, excluding club captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, have either been badly off-form or largely absent.
This has earned him a whole lot of goodwill, and based on Mikel Arteta’s reign so far, he’ll be a vital component going forward.
Having come into the side as a winger whose inclination was to hug the touchline, there were probably a plethora of sighs when the teenager replaced Sead Kolasinac at left-back just before half-time against Manchester City in mid-December. Given the Gunners were already three goals behind, there was a feeling the academy graduate could be targetted because he was playing out of position.
It ended 3-0 at the Emirates Stadium that day, but Saka wasn’t disgraced. Rather, he acquainted himself admirably in an alien position, which proved prescient to what’s followed since.
Months later, before the lockdown and owing to injuries to the Bosnian and Kieran Tierney, new boss Arteta was harnessing his natural tendencies as a left winger in his system. He was deployed at left-back, on paper, but in possession, the precocious Saka often took up positions a winger would be stationed.
This allowed Aubameyang, mostly utilised on the left, take up narrow positions to play closer to the frontman, with his efficiency in front of goal remaining intact.
In the time leading up to Arsenal’s return post-lockdown, questions were asked about Saka and how his influence could be lessened given Kolasinac and Tierney were healthy again. However, this only brought out the brilliance of the multifaceted teenager, whose swift understanding of several positions is exemplary.
Since the restart, the 18-year-old’s tactical intelligence has come to the fore: he’s played as a right winger, left wing-back, and as a ‘free 8’ in a midfield three, mostly to acceptable-to-good results.
It was from the right wing he spectacularly opened his Arsenal account just before half-time against Wolverhampton Wanderers last week, days after committing to the club on a long-term deal.
Nuno Espirito Santo’s troops hadn’t allowed a single goal in first-halves against West Ham United, Bournemouth and Aston Villa before the dynamic teenager ended their run of 177 minutes without conceding in first-halves, and 313 minutes in total.
The teenager was equally impressive against Leicester City in midweek, fooling an experienced head like Jonny Evans with quick footwork before setting up the club captain for his 20th league goal of the campaign. He’d have scored his second for the Gunners on the half-hour mark but was thwarted by Kasper Schmeichel, who saved expertly.
In truth, Saka may not necessarily nail down a permanent left-wing berth for the Gunners, as they must sign specialists in various positions, but his football brain makes him every manager’s dream player. Don’t forget he’s still only 18.
Over in Manchester, Greenwood has been one of the many positives for United since the restart, scoring four goals and setting up another in five matches since June. To get a clearer measure of how well the 18-year-old forward is performing, the fact all five goal contributions have come in the last three matches underline just how well he’s playing at the moment.
Many of those goals have been spectacular efforts, which in a sense explains why he’s outperforming his Expected Goals by far. According to Understat, the young Englishman’s xG of 2.99 means he’s outdoing his real tally of nine Prem goals considerably, and it’s no surprise it’s the largest disparity in the United side.
The immediate perception suggests his numbers are unsustainable, but there’s some context: given Greenwood’s two-footedness, which makes him even more unpredictable in possession, his proficiency at hitting the target from distance indicates he’ll score many low-percentage efforts.
While form, fitness and confidence will probably mean a mean reversion in future, the United youngster’s penchant for the unexpected demonstrates he could outperform his xG by a larger margin than usual for a while yet.
The focus pre-restart was on the Red Devils’ Fab Four – Paul Pogba, Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial – but maybe that ought to be renamed ‘Fab Five’ in the wake of Greenwood’s fine form. His magnificent assist for Bruno to complete a sweeping counter against Brighton & Hove Albion was a joy to behold. He not only scores belters but can pick out a final ball as well. The boy, certainly, can play.
And then there’s Chelsea’s Pulisic.
Despite being 21, three years older than the aforementioned pair, his showings since the restart have been extraordinary.
The American started the campaign slowly but began to show glimpses of his quality before the turn of the year. However, an injury in January meant he wasn’t seen in any capacity before football was halted.
There were eyebrows raised when Lampard opted for Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who hadn’t played in over a year, from the off against Aston Villa at the ex-Borussia Dortmund wideman’s expense in the Blues’ restart. Pulisic was introduced for an understandably rusty RLC 10 minutes after half-time, sparking a seven-minute turnaround for 2-1. The American got the equalizer and has been undroppable since.
Indeed, he’s dovetailed spectacularly with Willian, who’s equally been brilliant since the resumption, with his ball-carrying ability, fleet-footedness and admirable composure in front of goal catching the eye. The skill and guile of the 21-year-old has been particularly menacing for defences, prompting two penalty wins against West Ham and Watford.
Unsurprisingly, his form post-lockdown has brought about comparisons with ex-Chelsea talisman Eden Hazard. While there are similarities between the pair, there are also differences: Pulisic is undeniably more direct in his dribbling and tends to shoot more, a major source of exasperation for supporters and head coaches throughout the Belgian’s time in West London.
With three goals and two penalties won in five games, the American is slowly becoming the team’s most-important attacker. Considering the incoming arrivals of Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner, Chelsea fans may not have automatically included the US wideman in their preferred XI for the 2020-21 campaign a month or two ago.
Ask now and the former Borussia Dortmund man would certainly be included, and why shouldn’t he be after a series of thrilling displays since June?
Just how high each one will develop remains to be seen, but Saka, alongside the hugely talented Greenwood and Pulisic, have birthed a level of excitement in their respective club’s fanbases that will hopefully reverberate for many years to come.