No player at Arsenal has produced more assists since the start of last season than Bukayo Saka… after his decisive contribution at Brighton, the 19-year-old is fast becoming Mikel Arteta’s most important asset
- Bukayo Saka is only 19 but he is fast becoming Arsenal’s most important player
- His dynamism can turn a game and his enthusiasm is infectious to team-mates
- Mikel Arteta has urged caution but expectations are rocketing on the teenager
Typically little is expected right away of players stepping up from the Academy.
Often they are thrown in amid rotation in lesser cup competitions and if they impress in those they can earn a permanent fixture on the bench for the first team in the Premier League.
Step up to one of the ‘Big Six’ and opportunities can be even harder to come by. The depth goes far beyond what sides further down the table can turn to and a win-now mindset can see managers shy away from placing faith in youngsters.
Bukayo Saka is fast becoming the most important player in Arsenal’s team right now
Saka (left) is just 19 but he is providing important contributions, such as the one at Brighton
And so rarely does a teenager carry a team’s weight of expectation on his shoulders.
And yet, at just 19, that is exactly the responsibility that has fallen on Bukayo Saka because, without him stepping up, heaven knows the mess Arsenal would be in right now.
Mikel Arteta’s side are 13th, still very much underachieving, but take Saka out of the equation and this side would lose plenty.
It was Saka’s ball to Alexandre Lacazette on Tuesday night that proved decisive, the Frenchman scoring the only goal to down Brighton.
Lacazette took a lot of the plaudits, striking just 21 seconds after coming on but it was Saka’s involvement that had former Arsenal striker jumping off the sofa in a video shared by Match of the Day host Gary Lineker.
Saka’s fearlessness has made him box-office. While others in this Arsenal side appear hampered by past experiences, past disappointments, an association with failing and falling short, the 19-year-old looks to play with the same energy and love for the game as he did while attending Greenford High School in Ealing.
His rise is significant, a rare bright spark in a season which has been nothing shy of abysmal for Arsenal and their supporters.
There was so much hope before it began. Arteta had lifted an FA Cup and a Community Shield and had convinced club captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to pen fresh terms and commit to the club.
The Arsenal teenager was ranked in the top 10 for Tuttosport’s 2020 Golden Boy award
Mikel Arteta (right) is placing plenty of faith in Saka (left) and the youngster keeps delivering
Excitement in the red half of north London was electric but the bubble soon burst and now the hopes of a fan-base have, fairly or unfairly, been pinned on a teenager.
‘I would like everybody to be cautious and let him be and let him develop,’ Arteta, wary of the increasing pressure on Saka’s shoulders, said after the win over Brighton.
‘I think he’s having the right progression. I think he’s got the right people around him in his house in his entourage. And he’s got the right team-mates as well to support him all the time, give him confidence, keep his feet on the floor.
‘And hopefully we can be the right coaches around him, be the right club to see the player that he can be in the future.’
Arteta should hold no fear of Saka’s feet straying too far off the ground. Humility is a word that seems to follow him around. Arrogance is one that does not.
‘Bukayo was a great kid and a natural talent in so many areas,’ Saka’s former PE teacher Mark Harvey told ESPN in October.
‘I’m a basketball coach and for years I tried to get him to focus on that sport. Needless to say, football – and specifically Arsenal – won!
No Arsenal player has provided more assists than Saka’s 15 since the start of last season
‘I remember a few years ago, Bukayo was in tears after the school team lost a cup final. He was so distraught he almost couldn’t face playing football again, but that soon passed; he was a role model for taking things in his stride, always being sportsmanlike.’
Saka’s rise feels quick but his success has had foundations behind the scenes for years now.
Freddie Ljungberg became enamoured with Saka and his game when he coached the Under-23 side and it was the Swede who vouched for him to get a shot in the first team when Unai Emery arrived.
Emery was succeeding the legendary Wenger and while the now Villarreal manager has rarely shown a tendency to place trust in youngsters, Ljungberg was insistent that Saka and Joe Willock were worth an opportunity.
Emery trusted Ljungberg and Saka came off the bench in November 2018 in the Europa League to make his debut against Vorskla Poltava. He was handed 22 minutes and in that cameo he showed coaches they had a genuine star on their hands.
A month later he made his full senior debut against Qarabag at the Emirates Stadium. What stood out in these games was Saka’s fearlessness. He demanded the ball, got it and drove at his marker one-on-one.
‘I was relaxed,’ he said after featuring against Vorskla. His sereneness stood out and it’s been more of the same as his success has extrapolated.
Saka plays with a fearlessness that seems to hamper some of his experienced team-mates
He scored his first senior goal against Eintracht Frankfurt in September 2019 and since then he has become a permanent fixture in the first-team set-up.
Saka’s influence, which was on full display against Brighton at the AMEX Stadium on Tuesday night, is best evidenced in one stat: Since the start of last season, Saka has provided 15 assists in all competitions for Arsenal – more than any of his team-mates.
So not only is Saka fearless, relaxed on the pitch around players he has grown up watching, he is indisputably the best provider in Arteta’s squad since the start of the 2019-20 campaign.
Not that Saka is doing it for individual accolades but the recognition is already there across Europe and on the international circuit.
Back in October Saka was named on the 20-man shortlist for Tuttosport’s Golden Boy award. It was eventually won by Borussia Dortmund striker Erling Haaland but finishing ninth, Saka finished ahead of Man City winger Ferran Torres and Manchester United’s Mason Greenwood.
Then there is England. Some players rued the decision to postpone Euro 2020 while others felt 12 months would give them a chance to establish themselves in the squad.
If Gareth Southgate had to pick his squad for the tournament tomorrow it seems improbable that Saka does not make the cut.
His form led to England recognition in October but he is yet to commit to the Three Lions
Saka made his England debut in October against Wales in a friendly and while he remains eligible for both the Three Lions and Nigeria there will be those behind the scenes at the Football Association that will note a sense of urgency to convince Saka to commit with his rise inescapable right now.
‘He is an exciting player, we know he can play four or five different positions already,’ Southgate said earlier this year.
‘He’s done that for Arsenal – wide-left, wide-right, wing-back, left-back. I think out and out left-back at this level would be a little bit more difficult, but any of those advanced positions he is more than capable.’
Arteta is desperate to keep a lid on the excitement that has built up around Saka, armed with the knowledge of the responsibility being bestowed on a teenager.
But here is Saka, always smiling, always working and in an Arsenal side so devoid of energy and ideas, always delivering. The sky is very much the limit.
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