Bukayo Saka was Arsenal’s best player in Saturday’s 2-1 defeat to Brighton. With a year remaining on his current deal, the 18-year-old now poses the biggest contract problem to the club.
Arsenal have lots of crucial decisions to make this summer. Mikel Arteta is entering his first summer transfer window at the helm and, following Unai Emery’s disastrous 18-month tenure, he has lots of loose ends to tie up.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is the most prominent problem. The 31-year-old has a year left on his contract, looks increasingly disinterested at the club, but is the top goalscorer, captain, and Arteta is keen to keep him. There is no perfect solution to his future.
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There are others, too. Dani Ceballos will return to Real Madrid on loan, David Luiz may have already played his last game for the club, Shkodran Mustafi and Sokratis both have contracts that expire next summer, while Mesut Ozil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan present huge drains on the wage bill, so much so that the club has repeatedly tried and failed to offload them.
But for all of these issues, and all of them will need to be solved this summer, the biggest contractual conundrum that Arsenal must somehow find an answer to relates to young Bukayo Saka, who is quickly establishing himself as one of the brightest young talents in the Premier League.
The 18-year-old has been superb in his first season with the senior squad, especially since Arteta arrived. Initially at left-back and now in midfield, either on the wing or an inverted central midfield role that allows him to drift towards the left flank, Saka continues to prove that he is capable of producing on the senior stage. He was the best player on the pitch in Saturday’s 2-1 defeat to Brighton.
However, like with almost anything vaguely positive for Arsenal at present, this is a catch. And with Saka, it is a rather large and looming one. The teenager has stalled discussions regarding a new contract and could leave on a free next summer if he continues to reject the Gunners’ advances.
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Arteta is keen to keep Saka, as he has said publicly, and Arsenal do not need reminding what can happen when you lose high-quality young players on the cheap. Serge Gnabry, Donyell Malen, Jeff Reine-Adelaide and Ismael Bennacer have all flourished since leaving the Emirates on the cheap or for free. Saka cannot be added to that list.
How the club can solve the Saka problem is difficult to determine. If he refuses to sign a new deal, as Gnabry did in 2016, the club may have to sell in the hope that they can recoup a high transfer fee before losing him for nothing. And in the current climate, any fee they get will not be what he might be worth in three, four or eight years time.
Keeping Saka is of the utmost importance. Arteta knows this. Arsenal know this. And yet, there might be nothing that they can do about it. This is now the biggest contract problem to solve.