Bukayo Saka: Why a “hypnotic” teenager could be the future Arsenal captain

Arsenal's Bukayo Saka slips to the knee with teammate Hector Bellerin after scoring against Southampton

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Bukayo Saka was part of England’s last squad and could head to the European Championship this summer

When Bukayo Saka takes to the pitch on Thursday – fitness permitting – and tries to play his part in guiding Arsenal past Slavia Prague and into the Europa League semi-finals, he will not lack support.

In the halls of Greenford High School in Ealing, Saka’s legacy is important. Featured on the reception wall is a signed Arsenal shirt and a thank-you letter written by the 19-year-old, whose status as one of English football’s brightest prospects allows him to always dominate conversations for teachers. and students.

“Everyone was in high spirits when he made the England squad,” Mark Harvey, former physical education teacher at Saka and deputy headmaster at Greenford, told BBC Sport.

“The older students are studying his career, and whenever he does something, like score or create a goal, he is always sent to the staff WhatsApp group,” adds Dipesh Patel, the football coach of the Saka school. “Younger kids can’t believe he was a student here. “

Saka (fourth from left) with Greenford High School staff, including physical education teacher Mark Harvey (fourth from right)

Arsenal came first for Saka, ahead of high school and exams, which he usually took in his stride despite an extremely disrupted schedule, getting four A * and three A’s at GCSE before leaving in the summer of 2018 He stood out from an early age. , helping Greenford to regional and county success.

“I had been in school for several years, but I immediately saw something in him that I had never seen before,” Patel continues. “The way he moved, the way he saw the game and always seemed to be doing the right thing. He was just an amazing team player.

“In year 7, we lost the Ealing Borough Trophy final 4-3, and he missed a lot of chances; it was very different from him. I remember he came off the pitch and he felt like it was all his fault. for me: “I never play football again!” But he raised the standard of everyone around him.

“We got to the final quite easily, and he was mesmerizing in most games. Sometimes I would take it off at halftime, to be a little nicer to the other team. When he got to the 8th grade we pretty much won everything, the Ealing Borough Trophy and the Middlesex Cup, which was the county. It was never about him; there was just a great spirit in the team. ”

The winger, who has been with the Gunners since the age of seven, made his first-team debut in a Europa League draw in November 2018 and first appeared in the Premier League in January.

In August last year he was the winner of the FA Cup and was set to be awarded a new contract at Emirates Stadium. Two months later, after racing in the Under-16 age groups, he made his international debut in a win over Wales.

Despite establishing himself as a regular in North London and making his way into Gareth Southgate’s thinking for the rescheduled European Championship this summer, Saka has never forgotten his roots.

“He had a very good relationship with his head for years and a very good relationship with his manager, who was a Chelsea fan, so you can imagine the jokes between them from the start,” Harvey continues.

“He also had a close circle of friends, about five to eight boys. They were all really nice, and they weren’t just athletic, but academic as well. “

When the former director of Saka retired two years ago, he made sure to show his respect at his departure party.

“He went downstairs with his father and stayed for a few hours talking to the staff,” Harvey said. ” Everyone knows him; from our receptionist to our security guard. He had a relationship with them. “

“When he does things instinctively, they just happen”

The one thing that stood out most about Saka from a young age was his desire to succeed. His ability to beat a man and his versatility have also been crucial for his development with Arsenal and England.

“He was a very calm boy, incredibly respectful, a great listener, desperate to please and wanted to do his best,” said Neil Dewsnip, former England Under-18 coach.

“We played him at left back in a very offensive form in 4-3-3, in the same team as Mason Greenwood. Bukayo could also play as an attacking winger, and could even move to the right side, so he was very versatile.

“His ability to pass people with or without the ball was superb, as was his one-on-one dribbling, and he could score a few goals. “

“He’s great on both feet so he can go outside or cut inside,” said Martin Taylor, a former Arsenal scout who watched Saka during his time with the Under-16s.

“He had all the right attributes and a great desire to beat a player, create and score goals. When he does things instinctively, it happens. “

“He had the ability to see the field since he was in 7th and 8th grade, and you can’t teach him,” Harvey says.

“He would also play simply so simply. He could play in so many different positions from the start. I would go watch the games and he would be all over the field. “

“One day, he will be captain of Arsenal”

Personality and strength of character have become crucial factors in the makeup of young English footballers, which Dewsnip says are now key parts of their development process.

“Education is a big part of it,” says Dewsnip. “Young players are involved in workshops on social issues. When you hear Bukayo and others speaking, they do so with intelligence, insight, and maturity. “

“We are proud of the fact that we recognize the character development of students as well as their academia,” adds Harvey.

“We made it easy and worked with his family and Arsenal from the time he was with us. I went back to check his behavioral reports and there was nothing, he was Mr. Squeaky Clean!

“He’s always been so humble. When you are this good at something and you play against others who are not at the same level, it is important to remain a good sportsman. One day, he will be captain of Arsenal. “

Taylor says Saka’s mentality is what drove him to the top: “He plays with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, players much older than him. But he still has his own personality and character that allows him to do that. whatever he wants.

“His first thought is to look ahead – a lot of players don’t have that. A player with confidence, like Bukayo, will run over anyone. It’s the mentality. Either you were born with the intelligence of the game or you are not, he cannot be coached. You have to have a good intelligence and a good self-awareness to play at a good level. ”

‘There is a long way to go’

In one of his best performances of the season, Saka scored one and created another in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over Southampton in January.

After establishing himself as a key cog in Arsenal’s machine and making it to England’s last squad, only for a minor injury that disrupts his progress, Saka continues to impress. But Dewsnip calls for caution about the youngster’s future.

“He’s still in this decisive stage, really. He started his football career really well, but there is a long way to go, ”he said.

“For a coach, there is nothing better than working with a player who intervenes at the national level, but also, the expectations must be managed.

“Having been in that environment, chatting with Gareth and other national coaches, we always spoke of 50 appearances as being the bar for a true English player.

“I have no doubt Gareth is brave enough to put in young players, the evidence shows that, but then they have to be good enough. Bukayo took this opportunity, but he is still very young and I have no doubt that he will get better. “

Assisting Arsenal in the Europa League semi-finals would be further proof of their growing role for their club – and Southgate will follow with interest.

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