Saka a bright spot of Arsenal’s tough season as they compete for Europa League glory

Bukayo Saka negotiates one of the biggest off-field issues in football with the same mixture of skill and composure Arsenal fans have long come to recognise on the pitch.

“Of course I have experienced discrimination online, I think every player does,” he says with a matter-of-fact delivery. “It is very easy for someone to just do it and get away with it. For me, I don’t let it really affect me because I try not to look too much into it or read too much into it. I know that someone has the time of day to racially abuse me and stuff like this so I try not to stoop down to their level.

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“I actually spoke to [Aston Villa defender] Tyrone [Mings] the other day. He put some story on Instagram, someone just racially abused him casually like it is normal. He just put it on his story and I texted him to say: ‘It’s a joke, it is too easy for this to happen and something needs to be done’. He was saying ‘we are trying everything, we are trying to speak’. There is a lot being said, it is just the actions we want to see now.”

Premier League clubs will take part in a three-day social media boycott this weekend in a collective show of defiance, responding to what is viewed as a failure among tech companies to protect players like Saka. Thankfully, little seems to faze the 19-year-old. Even allowing for the consequences of COVID-19 condensing the schedule and emptying stadiums of fans, Arsenal’s season has been a turbulent one, punctuated by 13 Premier League defeats, speculation over manager Mikel Arteta’s future and renewed hostility among supporters towards the owners, Kroenke Sports Enterprises.

Amid all of this, Saka has quietly gone about establishing himself as one of the Gunners’ most important players while still only a teenager. So much so, in fact, Arsenal legend Ian Wright voiced concerns this month that he could be struggling under the weight of expectation, particularly as more senior players — including Willian, Nicolas Pepe and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang — have struggled with patchy form. Yet Saka embraces it.

“For me, as a player, I’ve always wanted to be the player to have the courage to play, to be the one that’s visible when everyone’s heads are down and stuff like that,” he said. “I don’t think I am the player that’s carrying Arsenal football club.

“In football, it is 11 men. I don’t think I can do anything just by myself. It is a team sport. So I just to encourage my teammates, encourage myself and even just do the maximum I can do for myself, which is of course to work the hardest on the pitch, to be the best on the pitch and try to make the difference.

“That’s something I put on myself. I don’t feel pressure from external voices. I respect Ian Wright a lot, of course. He is a legend in the game, so I respect his opinion. But for myself I just try to focus on myself and give me all.”

Saka signed his first Arsenal contract aged nine. He moved through the later age groups while studying at Greenford High School in Ealing, achieving four A* and three As in his GCSE exams before leaving in 2018. They still speak highly of him at the school, citing his return two years ago to attend his former headmaster’s retirement party as an example of his grounded character.

Saka was one of several youngsters to graduate at a similar time from the club’s Hale End academy, although only Emile Smith Rowe has come close to emulating his impact in the first-team.

The numbers comparing Arsenal results with Saka and Smith Rowe in the team and without tell their own story. When the duo started, the Gunners took 23 points from 12 League games this season. Without them, Arsenal have also amassed 23 points… but from 21 matches. Both were nominated for Young Player of the Year at this year’s London Football Awards, but it was Saka who took home the prize, the first significant honor of his senior career.

“It hasn’t sunk in, but it is good it hasn’t because I don’t want any of this to go to my head,” he said. “We’ve still got a big opportunity to win some big silverware, but it is nice to have this award. He [Smith Rowe] lives quite near me so if times were normal, we would probably hang out more, but of course with all the COVID-19 restrictions and stuff we have to keep our distance and all of this.

“On the pitch as well, we are always looking for each other to try and help each other, encourage each other when things are going bad so it is good to have a mate like that in the changing room.”

Saka has previously cited the influence of former Arsenal midfielder Freddie Ljungberg, who managed the Under-23s before being promoted to first-team coach under Unai Emery in June 2019. Emery gave Saka his senior debut in November 2018, but he broke through in earnest the following season making 26 League appearances – a tally he’s already surpassed this term (28), with Ljungberg providing close support to a fledgling group also including Joe Willock, Eddie Nketiah and Reiss Nelson.

Ljungberg often filled in the gaps left by Emery’s fractured command of English, but the Swede’s own words of encouragement also helped forged a bond and Saka revealed they are still in touch.

“Freddie texts me sometimes, just to encourage me,” he said. “If I have a good game, he’ll say ‘congratulations Bukayo, well done’. Of course I ask him how he is as well.

“We still keep in touch because I had a really good relationship with Freddie. Just because he’s not part of the football club doesn’t mean the relationship should die.”

Saka signed a new four-year contract last July and insisted he never thought about leaving despite reported interest from several top clubs including Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool.

“No, for me it was just to think about what’s best for my career and I felt what was best for my career was to continue playing with Arsenal,” said Saka. “I always believed Arsenal was the best thing.”

Saka will face Emery on Thursday evening in Arsenal’s Europa League semifinal, first leg against Villarreal. The Gunners have little hope of qualifying for European football through their Premier League position, meaning their season will stand or fall on winning the Europa League. If they get past their Spanish opponents, Manchester United or AS Roma would be waiting in the final on May 26.

“Unai deserves a lot of credit for the belief and trust he put in a lot of us,” said Saka. “It would mean everything, to me, to the fans, to the club to return back to the Champions League next season.”

Saka made his England debut last October as a wing-back. He has shown versatility in a number of positions but it is as a winger — predominantly on the left, but also off the right — where he has excelled most. He would surely get a spot in Gareth Southgate’s Euro 2020 squad were there not a plethora of talent in that position, with Raheem Sterling, Jack Grealish, Phil Foden, Jason Sancho, Marcus Rashford and James Maddison also vying for inclusion with stadiums set to be at least 25 percent full again.

“It would be such an honour to be selected and to play of course in England at Wembley,” he said. “I heard there’s going to be a few fans as well so it’ll be such a special moment for me and my career.”

Saka is on track for plenty of special moments regardless of whether he makes the Euro squad. And the evidence so far suggests he’ll take each one in his stride.

Editor’s Note: James Olley was on the voting panel for the 2021 London Football Awards

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